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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 13:57 GMT
Booze hike 'won't stop bingeing'
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Alcohol
The price of alcohol has remained steady for years
Public health chiefs have welcomed the tax rises on alcohol, but said there is still a way to go before it starts influencing drinking habits.

Chancellor Alistair Darling announced excise duty on beer, wine and spirits would rise by 6% above inflation - the biggest monetary rise since the 1970s.

It comes after the levy has struggled to keep pace with inflation since Labour came to power.

But experts said it was still not enough to make a "real difference".

Of course, pricing is not the only way of dealing with alcohol problems.

The government has already published an alcohol harm reduction strategy in 2004 which concentrated on improving treatment, raising awareness and enforcing drinking laws.

And licensing laws have also been relaxed in a bid to slow down people's drinking in the run up to pub closing.

But the Budget does mark a stark change in policy towards the taxing of alcohol.

And it comes ahead of a review being carried out by Sheffield University on behalf of ministers which is looking at the relationship between price, promotion and harm.

ALCOHOL TAX RISES
Beer - up 4p a pint
Cider - up 3p a pint
Wine - up 14p a bottle
Spirits - up 55p a bottle

The price of alcohol has barely changed since the mid 1990s, meaning when inflation is taken into account it has fallen in real terms.

Price promotions by retailers obviously play a part, but then so does the trend in excise duty hikes.

Increases in recent years have been minimal. Duty on beer and wine has only broadly kept pace with inflation.

Some 1.33 is currently levied on a bottle wine - compared to 1.12 in 1998.

Meanwhile, the duty on spirits had been frozen since 1997.

Mr Darling said: "As incomes have risen, alcohol has become more affordable. In 1997, if you went into a supermarket the average bottle of wine was 4.45 in today's prices, today it is 4."

So within that context, the rises announced are significant. Beer is up 4p a pint from Sunday, cider 3p, wine 14p a bottle and spirits 55p a bottle.

It represents a rise of 6% above inflation and over the next four years, the Chancellor said duty would continue to go up by 2% above inflation.

Pressure

It comes at a time when more and more pressure is being placed on the government to use the lever of price to tackle binge-drinking Britain.

READ THE BUDGET IN FULL

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The British Medical Association recently urged the government to raise taxes to help tackle the increasing levels of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol consumption has been rising steadily for the past 15 years, with figures suggesting a third of men and a fifth of women drink more than the recommended levels each week.

And alcohol-related deaths have more than doubled since 1991 to over 8,700 a year.

The BMA said a 10% rise in price could cut deaths by up to 30%.

And evidence from Finland has suggested this may be so. A cut in excise duty in 2004 by 33% - introduced in order to deal with the issue of cheap imports from abroad - led to a 17% rise in alcohol-related mortality.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, of the Faculty of Public Health, said: "It's a good start, but still short of what's needed to make a real dent in binge drinking.

"Current prices are so low that young people can binge for less than the cost of a burger and chips.

"The Chancellor's tax hike will help to deter some of them some of the time, but needs to go much further to make a real difference."

Don Shenker, of Alcohol Concern, said the rises helped address the issue of alcohol becoming more affordable.

But he added: "For tax hikes to work the government has to force big retailers to stop discounting so deeply."

British Liver Trust chief executive Alison Rogers suggested supermarkets be banned from selling alcohol at under 40p or 50p a unit.

"It is time to take it a step further and legislate for a minimum price per unit."

But Jeremy Beadles, of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said the tax hike was "hitting all drinkers for the sins of a minority".

Meanwhile, duty on tobacco is set to rise again, adding 11p to the price of a packet of 20 cigarettes and 4p to five cigars.

Cancer Research UK's Harpal Kumar said: "We are very disappointed that the government is not significantly increasing tobacco tax above inflation."



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