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Face-off: is it right to impose limits on the cost of drink?

Posted at 3:15 pm, January 22, 2012 in Food & Drink

If your New Year’s resolution is to ditch the booze, your task might become easier with the government’s plan to set a minimum price on alcohol of around 45 pence per unit. We ask: Is it right to impose limits on the cost of drink?
Yes- Sir Ian Gilmore, Royal College of Physicians special advisor on alcohol
‘The Royal College of Physicians welcomes the signs of support from the government to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol, which the RCP has recommended for many years. Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Its misuse has triggered
a tsunami of harm in the UK over the past few decades, with a seemingly inexorable rise in the amount of people suffering liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer, and year-on-year increases in emergency admissions due to alcohol. ‘Experience from other countries has shown that the biggest influences on how much alcohol people drink are price and availability. When taxes came down in Finland, drinking went up and so did alcohol-related problems. If we increase the price of alcohol and reduce its availability, we may be able to stem the tide of alcohol-related harm. ‘In these straitened times, I can understand public concern at a rise in prices, but there may be a misconception of the real effect this would have. A minimum unit price of 50 pence would prevent supermarkets being able to sell alcohol as a loss leader, and would hit heavy drinkers and young drinkers the hardest, but not affect the price of drinks in pubs and bars. As the young are particularly vulnerable, I would hope society accepts that a minimum unit price would help to protect them from the problems arising from binge drinking, including accidents and unwanted pregnancies. ‘A minimum alcohol price is not the only answer to reducing alcohol-related harm. We need an increase in funding for alcohol treatment and prevention services, to bring them up to the level of services provided for users of illegal drugs, and better regulation of the drinks industry, as voluntary agreements and codes are not working. The situation is so serious it has to be tackled from all angles, and minimum pricing would be a good start.’

No – Gavin Partington, communications director, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association
‘Supporters of minimum unit pricing for alcohol tend to forget that experience around the world calls into question the idea that price rises curb problem drinking. ‘The UK has among the highest priced alcohol in Europe, yet there’s no evidence to support the notion that high prices combat alcohol misuse. In fact, it’s the high-tax/high-price countries like Sweden and the UK that tend to have a problem with alcohol misuse, whereas low-tax/low-price Spain and Italy don’t. ‘What’s more, thanks to above-inflation increases in excise duty for several years, combined with last year’s hike in VAT, millions of ordinary consumers are facing the reality of even higher prices for alcohol in the UK. ‘The truth is that minimum unit pricing does not stack up. Of course, if you raise the price of something enough, you may reduce overall consumption. But as we well know, that does not mean a solution to alcohol misuse – overall alcohol consumption has fallen by 11 per cent since 2004 yet reported alcohol-related health harms continue to rise. ‘Logic alone tells you the person who abuses alcohol is least likely to be deterred from drinking by price rises and evidence from studies shows this. But there’s a point of principle here too. Why should all of us pay higher prices for alcohol because a minority drink excessively? It’s not fair, and to suggest further price rises for everyone in the current economic circumstances shows scant regard for the vast majority of consumers. ‘We can all agree we need to tackle alcohol misuse in this country but it will take time to address the issue, including tough enforcement of existing laws and proper education about the risks. Price hikes won’t solve the problem, however tempting it is to imagine that minimum unit pricing offers a silver bullet.’

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