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19 January 2012

Counting the cost of alcohol

Counting the cost of alcohol

Research published by the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches just before Christmas showed that over 60 per cent of people believed excessive drinking caused problems near their homes. The churches commissioned a YouGov poll to consider whether alcohol caused problems in the local community.

The churches called for the government to introduce a minimum price for the sale of alcohol after the survey showed that 61 per cent of those polled noted alcohol-related problems within walking distance of their homes or at local shops.

The campaign for minimum pricing, which would be fixed at a minimum price for the sale of each unit of alcohol, probably around 40-50p, is proposed as one way of countering the negative effects of alcohol on British society. Medical leaders wrote to the Daily Telegraph last year warning that "pocket money prices" for alcohol were endangering thousands of lives every year, and that minimum prices would be a "simple and effective mechanism" for tackling the problem.

News emerged over Christmas that David Cameron was considering introducing a minimum price despite opposition from his Cabinet colleagues. A minimum price would prevent supermarkets, and any other outlets, from selling alcohol as cheaply as they sometimes currently do. An alternative system would be to tax alcohol based on the number of units in each drink.

A minimum price of 45p per unit, which is around the level under consideration, would mean a pint of beer would cost at least a pound, wine just over £4 and a bottle of whiskey around £14. While this would not be a significant increase for many products it would hit the sale of high strength beer and other cheaper products. It would also prevent shops from offering big discounts and limit multi-buy offers.

Concern was expressed that such plans might amount to an increase in the reach of the 'nanny state', including by Conservative backbench MPs. However, the prime minister has said that he will "look carefully" at how to tackle the problems of cheap alcohol and is said to back a clear and strong approach following the successful implementation of the smoking ban.

An official study suggested that a minimum price of 40p could prevent 1,000 deaths a year, with a 50p minimum saving more than 2,000 lives. Industry groups such as the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said there was "no evidence [a minimum price] will tackle alcohol misuse".

The Evangelical Alliance will be joining with other church groups to press for action on alcohol policy, for public health reasons, and for the benefit of local communities often blighted by alcohol fuelled social problems. As well as the church denominations that published the survey into alcohol in the community the Alliance will be working closely with the Salvation Army.

The Coalition has already taken steps to prevent alcohol being sold at below cost price as well as introducing higher levels of taxation for super-strength beers and ciders. Warnings have been expressed that attempts to introduce a minimum price could flout European competition law. A minimum price could only by introduced if it can be shown that they are tackling a major health problem without undermining competition.

Prior to the last election for the Scottish Parliament the government there floated plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol; however, as a minority administration they were unable to pass the vote. It is expected that the plans will be reintroduced now the Scottish National Party have a majority.

Similar proposals are also being considered at a local level with Greater Manchester and Merseyside considering bylaws that would set a minimum price for alcohol. A minimum price for alcohol is gaining ground as a workable and useful policy, and its introduction at a local level and in Scotland could well pave the way for its use across the UK.