The Parliamentary Yearbook has been monitoring progress in Government policy relating to alcohol misuse for major features on the topic in the next edition of the publication
In evidence to MPs last week, the Office of Fair Trading warned that the Government’s plans to outlaw cheap alcohol could result in supermarkets being encouraged to sell more rather than less drink.
The Government’s alcohol strategy sets out proposals to crack down on the ‘binge drinking’ culture in our country; cut the alcohol-fuelled violence and disorder that blights too many of our communities; and slash the number of people drinking to damaging levels.
The strategy includes commitments to:
- introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol
- consult on a ban on the sale of multi-buy alcohol discounting
- introduce stronger powers for local areas to control the density of licensed premises including making the impact on health a consideration for this
- pilot innovative sobriety schemes to challenge alcohol-related offending
Figures today show an ever-growing cost of alcohol to the NHS which currently stands at £2.7bn a year, including £1bn on accident and emergency services. £2.7bn equates to £90 for every taxpayer in the country. This is part of a wider cost to society from alcohol of between £17 billion and £22 billion per annum. In 2010/11 alone there were 200,000 hospital admissions with a primary alcohol-related diagnosis, 40 per cent higher than in 2002/03. The number of patients admitted with acute intoxification has more than doubled to 18,500 since 2002/03.
However the Office of Fair Trading is concerned that shops will have an incentive to promote their cheapest range of drinks because they will benefit from higher margins on these products. The watchdog said that supermarkets and the drinks industry would gain additional profit from every unit of low-cost alcohol that they sell.
The OFT is also worried that the Government’s interference in prices will set a dangerous precedent to undermine free market forces. It found that similar price controls in France and Ireland meant that had a higher cost of living.
The watchdog said in its evidence:
“By legitimising intervention to control prices in a competitive market, it will be harder for the Government to resist calls for similar measures in other parts of the retail sector in future.”
The OFT also believes that a simple tax per unit on items sold would be better than minimum pricing since this would not encourage supermarkets to sell more alcohol.
The House of Commons Health Select Committee in its report on the Government’s Alcohol Strategy published last month supported the decision to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. On this question, the Committee Chair, the Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell MP, said:
“The Committee supports the decision to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol , but the Government needs to recognise that setting the price is not a one-off event. A transparent process must be put in place in order to ensure that the price level is evidence-based and is monitored over time to assess its effectiveness.
“We also recommend that there should be a ‘sunset clause’ on the implementation of a minimum price so that it only remains in place if it is shown to be effective in reducing harmful drinking.”
“Striking the right balance on alcohol consumption is not straight forward. Most people enjoy alcohol without evidence of significant harm to their health, yet it is not possible to define what is a generally safe level of consumption as alcohol affects different people in different ways. Individuals who drink alcohol and the companies which sell it have an obligation to do so in a way which respects the rights and interests of their fellow citizens,” adds Stephen Dorrell.
The Home Office is due to give more detail on the plans for minimum pricing later in the year and the Parliamentary Year book will continue to report on Government action to curb alcohol misuse over the months ahead.