Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The debate over alcohol minimum pricing scuttles onward. The Wine, Spirit and Trade Association are about to begin their campaign against its introduction, ‘Why should we pay more?’ Preempting this imminent campaign launch, Dr Nick Sheron, an executive committee member of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said:
The drinks industry is now using the tactics of Big Tobacco in trying to undermine evidence-based alcohol policy measures which would save lives and specifically target young and heavy drinkers. A minimum unit price is a targeted policy that will impact heavy drinkers whilst leaving the majority of moderate drinkers unaffected, and the international evidence (from Canada) shows that it works.
In a similar vein, Eric Appleby, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern stated:
This is a shameful and cynical attempt by big business to keep a tight grip on their profits at the expense of the health and welfare of the young and the vulnerable, the groups MUP is designed to help. We’ve seen these kinds of tactics of putting profits before people by the tobacco industry and we cannot allow the drinks industry to mislead, bully and spend their way to a policy change. Independent research shows responsible drinkers will notice very little difference under MUP. It is a targeted measure, aimed at protecting vulnerable groups from very strong, very cheap alcoholic drinks.
The Royal College of Physicians claims that the alcohol minimum price will “prevent 3,000 alcohol-related deaths in England each year”, citing research from the University of Sheffield. The RCP also claims that this policy will “hit young drinkers and heavy drinkers hardest”, “society is already paying for the high economic burden of alcohol misuse” and that “moderate drinkers will not be affected”.
There have been two different studies based on the experiences in two Canadian provinces. The first is The Raising of Minimum Alcohol Prices in Saskatchewan, Canada: Impacts on Consumption and Implications for Public Health by Professor Tim Stockwell, Dr Jinhui Zhao, Dr Norma Giesbrecht, Dr Scott MacDonald, Dr Gerald Thomas and Ashley Wettlaufer. The second study is Does minimum pricing reduce alcohol consumption? The Experience of a Canadian Province by Professor Tim Stockwell , Dr Chris Auld, Dr Jinhui Zhao and Dr Gina Martin, which looked at the effect of minimum prices on alcohol consumption in British Columbia. Whilst these study’s authors, Dr Sheron and the RCP believe that these studies are proof that minimum unit pricing “works”, there is a vast gorge between what the studies actually show and what it is claimed they show. Both the Saskatchewan and British Columbia provinces introduced minimum unit pricing in 2010. Both studies have similar conclusions: increases in alcohol prices decreases total consumption, and there were variations in that decrease between different alcoholic beverages. What these studies do not investigate is the effect of minimum prices on heavy and hazardous drinkers. It was merely suggested in the BC study that since there is “good evidence from individual studies that hazardous drinkers tend to seek out the cheapest forms of alcohol”, minimum pricing may have public health benefits through indirectly reducing such drinkers’ consumption. As heavy and problematic consumers of a product are less sensitive to price increases than lighter and casual consumers, it is expected the decline in total consumption arises from lighter drinkers getting less tipsy, rather than heavier drinkers putting down their bottles.
Taxpayer-sustained ‘public health’ lobbying groups Alcohol Concern, Balance North East and Drink Wise North West have conglomerated to fund the website minimumpricing.info, which lambasts the consumption of alcohol in society. The website wrongly claims that there are 15-20,000 “alcohol-related premature deaths every year in the UK”. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 8,790 alcohol-related deaths in the UK in 2010, 126 more than in 2009. This means that the website has overestimated the amount of alcohol-related deaths by about a factor of 2, hardly an incidental mistake. Their figure appears to be derived from the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England, a 2003 Cabinet Office document. The methodology that mined this ‘15-20,000 alcohol-related deaths per year’ statistic differs wildly from the methodology employed by the ONS. Whilst author Christopher Snowdon has bared the fatal flaws in the models used by the University of Sheffield, the actual number of alcohol-related deaths exposes the abject nonsense of the claim that minimum pricing would reduce such deaths by 3,000 a year. There would have to be a 34.1% decrease on the 2010 figure. At a minimum, this is ineffably unprecedented.
A minimum unit price is not, and cannot, be a targeted policy. It affects all customers, as specific low prices for different alcoholic drinks are rendered illegal. The teetotaller purchasing a gift would be just as unable to buy a bottle of scotch whiskey for under £12.60 as a man blind drunk by 9am, assuming a 45p minimum unit price. When the RCP say that “young drinkers and heavy drinkers will be hit hardest” by the alcohol minimum unit price, they actually mean that these two groups will be deliberately made significantly poorer by this policy, all for the aim of assisting them. To quote C.S. Lewis, “of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, households with income below £10,000 spends on average, 34p per unit of alcohol, compared to households with income over £60,000, which spent 41p per unit. Given the rabid desire by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK and other public health advocates for a 50p minimum unit price, it cannot seriously be argued that moderate drinkers would be “unaffected”. Furthermore, alcohol duty is applied as an extra layer of taxation on all alcoholic drinks. In the fiscal year 2011-12, the government raised £2.7bn on spirit duties, £3.1bn on wine duties and £3.7bn through beer and cider duties. In total, alcohol duties levied on the British people extracted £9.5bn. This revenue covers most of the identified costs given by the minimumpricing.info website, including £3.5bn ‘extra’ healthcare on the National Health Service.
The AHA may wish for alcohol over-consumption to be reduced, but the price insensitivity of heavy and hazardous drinkers means that alcohol minimum pricing is a blunt and brittle instrument for achieving this aim. A consultation on such a drastic measure should include both sides of the argument. Alcohol beverage manufacturers are attempting to campaign on behalf their businesses and their products, but are being accused by public health advocates of perverting and sabotaging the consultation’s process. For these public health groups, all industries must be suffocated and debilitated. Despite the public veneer of these consultations, the only submissions that public health advocates want to be heard are their own, especially when the wider public disagrees with them. Dr Sheron and Mr Appleby summoned a spectre of smoke, ‘Big Tobacco’, to sully and smear the Wine, Spirits and Trade Association into silence. The tactics of the public health industry should be examined.