Friday March 23 2012
Cheapest alcoholic drinks could rise in price for nation's health
The government has unveiled plans for minimum alcohol pricing in England. The proposal suggests a minimum price of 40 pence per unit as part of a wider alcohol strategy to curb health problems and crime associated with binge drinking.
It is estimated that each year alcohol causes over 1 million NHS hospitalisations and 1 million violent crimes in England, primarily through binge drinking. Earlier this week NHS figures revealed that deaths from liver disease had risen by 25% in less than a decade, mainly driven by alcohol.
The price of most drinks would be unaffected by a 40p threshold, although many super-strength and own-brand products could see large price rises: at present some super-strength lagers and ciders contain 4.5 units per can but sell for less than a pound, equating to less than 20p per unit.
Some bottles of ciders could also double in price, as some supermarkets sell them for less than 20p per unit – an equivalent of less than 50p per pint. This is well below the £3-£4 pounds charged in pubs.
The strategy has also called for consultation on multi-buy deals offering cheap alcohol in bulk, as well as a "zero tolerance" approach to dealing with drunken behaviour in A&E departments and new legislation over the licensing of pubs and clubs. The strategy is still at a proposal stage but the government hopes to implement it by 2015.
What is minimum pricing and why is it being proposed?
Minimum pricing per unit of alcohol is when no alcohol is allowed to be sold below a set price per unit. At present, supermarkets and other retailers frequently offer alcohol at discounted prices, with some reportedly offering alcohol at loss-making prices to attract customers. Bringing in a 40p per unit minimum would mostly affect cut-price brands, super-strength drinks and those offered at heavy discounts, but would be unlikely to affect many name brands or drinks in pubs.
The government argues that a minimum price for selling alcohol will reduce heavy drinking, which it says accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country and is associated with crime and violence. The prime minister, David Cameron, is reported to have said that a 40p minimum price per unit could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths annually by the end of the decade.
What is a unit?
Due to the fact that drinks come in many strengths and sizes, their alcoholic content is expressed in units, which tells you how much pure alcohol a serving contains. One unit is defined as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. A drink of alcohol is not the same as a unit: for example, a single pint of premium lager, bitter or cider (5% alcohol by volume) contains about three units.
The recommended maximum limit is two-to-three units a day for a woman and three-to-four units a day for a man. The NHS Choices alcohol unit calculator can help you to find out how many units there are in different types and amounts of alcoholic drinks.
What price is being proposed?
The government has said that it is still consulting on what the minimum price should be, but it has indicated that this could be 40p per unit. A 40p minimum per unit would not affect more expensive wine or a pint of beer bought in a pub. However, the cheaper drinks normally bought from supermarkets and off-licences will be affected, for example:
- A two-litre bottle of 5% cider currently costing £1.60 from some retailers would increase to £4 minimum.
- A bottle of cheap 12% strength wine currently costing £3 would increase to £3.60 minimum.
An analysis undertaken by The Guardian found that a minimum price could increase the price of more than one-in-five current supermarket drink deals. Over 20% of the drink deals currently on offer by four major supermarkets were priced below 40p per unit, and therefore would not be permitted under the new legislation.
What health toll does binge drinking currently have?
There’s no denying that binge drinking (usually defined as drinking twice the recommended daily limit on one occasion) is a problem in Britain. The NHS Information Centre reported that in England in 2009, 20% of men surveyed reported binge drinking on at least one day in the past week, as did 13% of women. Binge drinking was highest among the 25-44 age-group for men and the 16-24 age-group for women.
The immediate risks of getting drunk include experiencing traffic accidents, violence, risky sexual behaviour and alcohol poisoning, which is a dangerous medical emergency. However, researchers also think that binge drinking may increase the risk of long-term health problems, in particular cardiovascular disease. One study found that binge drinkers had almost double the risk of major coronary events such as a heart attack, compared to regular non-binge drinkers. Heavy drinking also increases the risk of several cancers and liver damage.
Alcohol also has a wider social impact. A report published in The Lancet in 2010 ranked 20 drugs according to their harms to both the individual and others, and it ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug to others. A second report found that alcohol-related admissions to hospital rose to record levels in 2009-2010, with over a million hospital visits, while another article in The Lancet published in February 2011 predicted that there could be up to 250,000 alcohol-related deaths over the next 20 years unless policies are introduced to reduce alcohol consumption.
What impact is re-pricing predicted to have?
The government predicts that making it more expensive to get drunk will reduce crime, violence and admissions to hospital. A 40p-minimum per unit could mean “50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year by the end of the decade,” prime minister David Cameron has been quoted as saying.
A minimum price is supported by many experts, academics and alcohol charities on the grounds that it will "reduce harms". Work by researchers at Sheffield University in 2008, commissioned by the Department of Health, modelled the likely effects of various policy options on alcohol pricing and promotion. It found that on balance there was evidence that increases in alcohol prices are linked to reductions in both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms, and can bring “significant health and social benefits”. Projections in the study predicted that a 40p minimum price would mean 41,000 fewer hospital admissions annually and 100,000 fewer daily absences from work.
The Sheffield report also said that the higher the minimum price, the greater the benefit, and that some health professionals support a minimum price of 50p per unit. One report in the BMJ published in 2011 said that recent UK estimates suggested a 50p minimum price would lead to 3,393 fewer deaths, 97,900 fewer hospital admissions, 45,800 fewer crimes and 296,900 fewer sick days each year.
How will it affect me?
Financially, it depends on how much you drink, what you drink and where, although generally it appears that only the very cheapest drinks and those on special offer would see a significant rise in price. The government has said that the policy will not affect “responsible drinkers” or those who like a pint or two at the pub. The Sheffield report said that, as might be expected, those who buy the greatest volumes of alcohol would be hit hardest from minimum pricing, but that moderate drinkers (those who drink within recommended guidelines) would be affected very little. It said that if a 40p minimum price was introduced, moderate drinkers would be predicted to spend on average about 11p extra weekly.
The Sheffield researchers also said that heavy drinkers could gain significant health benefits from reducing their consumption (although underage and young binge drinkers may benefit less). The estimated reduction in crime-related harm would naturally benefit everyone.
How would alcohol prices change under the proposals?
Alcohol prices vary greatly depending on the drink itself, where it is bought from and the volume it is bought in. A pint of lager in a pub might cost you £4, but in an off-licence you could get four cans for the same price and in a supermarket you might be able to pick up a whole crate for just a few pounds more. Equally, if you were to buy a branded bottle of spirits you might pay around £14, but an unbranded one could be bought for half the price.
However, listed below are some examples of current prices and the minimum price they would rise to if the current proposals pass.
Beer, lager and cider
- A pint of 5% lager beer or cider in an average pub currently costs £3-£4, although in some pubs, working men’s clubs and student unions the price will be lower. At this strength, a pint would contain just under 2.9 units, and therefore cost a minimum of £1.16, which means the prices in the vast majority of pubs and bars would be unaffected.
- A 440ml can of 5% beer, lager or cider contains 2.2 units, therefore it would have a minimum price of 88p. If sold alone this would be unlikely to change the price of most branded drinks, although some cut-price brands would rise in price. However, supermarkets currently sell multi-packs of both branded and unbranded beers for much less, at around 65p per can.
- Some super-strength lagers, beers and ciders can contain around 4.5 units per can but retail at less than a pound in some off-licences. Each can can hold more units than the recommended maximum intake per day. Under the proposals, these would increase greatly in price, with a 4.5-unit can rising to £1.80.
- Large bottles of cider can currently be bought cheaply, at around £1.60 for two litres of 5% cider. This is just 16p per unit, whereas under the new proposals a bottle would rise to £4.
- A 750ml bottle of average strength wine (12% alcohol) contains nine units of alcohol. At £5 a bottle, that’s 55p a unit. A cheap bottle of wine (£3) costs 33p per unit. Under the new proposals the minimum price would be £3.60.
- A maximum-strength 750ml bottle of wine (14.5% alcohol) contains approximately 10.9 units, therefore the minimum price would be £4.36.
Spirits and pre-mixed drinks
- A bottle of spirits such as vodka, gin or whisky typically has 40% strength, so a 700ml bottle would contain 28 units. At a price of 40p per unit this bottle would cost a minimum of £11.20, which means most name brands would be unaffected, but some cut-price and own-brand spirits would rise in price.
- Some cans of pre-mixed drinks containing a spirit and cola, for example, can be bought for as little as £1. These are typically around 250ml and have a strength of 6.5%, which means they contain approximately 1.6 units and would not be affected by the proposed minimum price.