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Minimum alcohol pricing 'saves lives'

By
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
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10th February 2014 – A new Sheffield University study suggests that making alcohol more expensive per unit would affect 'harmful drinkers' but not penalise responsible drinkers.

Drinks industry bodies are currently challenging the Scottish Government's plan for a minimum unit price of 50p. The Scotch Whisky Association says minimum unit pricing won’t be effective in tackling misuse and will damage the Scotch Whisky industry.

A 45p minimum price was planned for England, but dropped last July and a ban on 'deep discounting' is being adopted instead. Those measures are due to come into force in April 2014, and will stop businesses from selling alcohol at heavily discounted prices. The aim is to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and the crime and harm to health linked to heavy drinking.

The new study's findings have been welcomed by the campaign group, the Alcohol Health Alliance.

Modelling study

The Sheffield researchers built a statistical model to work out how people respond to alcohol price changes.

They wanted to work out whether people with different incomes would change their drinking habits and spending on alcohol if there was a minimum price for alcohol of 45p per unit.

The study predicts that minimum pricing would have the biggest effect on the 5% of the population who are classed as harmful drinkers. That's defined as having more than 50 units a week for men, and more than 35 units a week for women.

The research team say that would help prevent 860 premature deaths a year and reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions by 29,900 a year.

The biggest effect, the study says, would be on harmful drinkers on the lowest incomes. They are predicted to cut their alcohol intake by around 300 units a year.

However, the effect on moderate drinkers on low incomes would be far smaller, leading to a reduction of 3.8 units a year, or about 2 pints of beer.

'Large health gains'

In a statement, the study’s lead author, Dr John Holmes says: "Policy makers need to balance larger reductions in consumption by harmful drinkers on a low income against the large health gains that could be experienced in this group from reductions in alcohol-related illness and death."

Another author of the study, Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group says: "Our study finds no evidence to support the concerns highlighted by Government and the alcohol industry that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes. Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol. 

"By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities."

The study, published in the Lancet, was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Reaction

In a statement, Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians special advisor on alcohol, and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance says: "It is excellent to have this important confirmation of what we have been telling UK Government – a minimum unit price for alcohol would NOT damage the pockets of moderate drinkers whatever their income and is an evidence-based policy that is exquisitely targeted at those, and those around them, who are currently suffering harm.  It is time for Government to stop listening to the vested interests of the drinks industry and act."

Published on February 10, 2014

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