A recent review commissioned by the government from Public Health England (PHE) concluded that ministers should introduce minimum unit pricing of alcohol to tackle the grim medical, economic and social toll of drink-related harm. The report leaves little doubt about PHE’s support for the policy, observing that “the financial burden which alcohol-related harm places on society is not reflected in its market price, with taxpayers picking up a larger amount of the overall cost compared to the individual drinkers”.
The study found that alcohol is now the biggest killer of people aged between 15 and 49 in England and is a factor in more than 200 different illnesses. The study predicts that alcohol-related cancer will kill 135,000 by 2035. In 2015 there was an estimated 167,000 working years lost due to alcohol, 16% of all working years lost in England.
It finds that alcohol leads to such huge harm that the loss of economic activity it results in, through early death and disability among workers, is more than that for the 10 most common cancers combined.
The new analysis has examined all the available evidence globally on alcohol harm and the steps which are effective in reducing it.
The report says: “Policies that reduce the affordability of alcohol are the most effective, and cost-effective, approaches to prevention and health improvement … Implementing a minimum unit price is a highly targeted measure which ensures any resulting price increases are passed on to the consumer, improving the health of the heaviest drinkers who experience the greatest amount of harm. It would have a negligible impact on moderate drinkers and the price of alcohol sold in pubs, bars and restaurants.”
It says pricing policies should be updated in line with changes in income and inflation, “in order to retain their relative affordability and therefore be able to impact upon alcohol-related harm”.
PHE makes clear that the pricing of alcohol and the way it is marketed need to be urgently re-examined. It says policies can “address market failures by protecting people from the harm caused by other people’s drinking, deterring children from drinking, and improving consumer awareness of the risks of alcohol consumption.”
The review, carried out by PHE and Sheffield University, found that the economic burden of health, social and economic alcohol-related harm was substantial, with estimates placing the annual cost at between 1.3% and 2.7% of GDP.
The report’s conclusions will pose difficulties for the Department of Health, which asked PHE to undertake the assessment of the latest research. It will now rightly face questions about why the government is not pushing ahead with introducing the policy, given that the evidence suggests it would be effective and that it was a key initiative in the previous coalition government’s original alcohol strategy.
As Chief Executive of a drugs and alcohol charity I see the harm that alcohol does on a daily basis. I saw the impact as a police officer. I saw the impact as a probation officer. I saw the impact on children and families as a social worker. For this reason I would urge the Government to take urgent action to develop a national alcohol strategy based on the findings of this report at a time when the harms caused by alcohol are increasing dramatically. It would be a great show of unity for a concerted approach to this issue across all four UK nations. As always, Scotland and the SNP deserve credit for taking an inspirational lead on this issue rather than the unconvincing approach evidenced by current policy decisions in England.