Page last updated at 01:15 GMT, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Raising the minimum price of alcohol 'benefits all'

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News

A bottle of wine would cost at least 4.50 if the policy was introduced

Raising the price of alcohol would have health benefits for all drinkers, not just the heaviest, say researchers.

Setting the minimum cost at 50p per unit of alcohol would save up to 50,000 people from illness in a decade, the Sheffield University team calculates.

Most of the harm reduction would be for people aged 45 and older with chronic ill health, especially cardiovascular disease, they say in the Lancet.

But retailers say minimum pricing penalises responsible drinkers.

'Additional burden'

The Sheffield team says a 50p per unit would mean moderate drinkers paid an extra £12 a year.

A 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol would mean a standard bottle of wine could not be sold for less than £4.50, a two litre bottle of cider for £5.50, and the average six pack of lager for £6.

England's Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has been calling for such a pricing policy.

The government has said it wants to crack down on cheap alcohol. But it has not said how yet, and has made it clear that it does not want to impose additional burdens on the majority, who were "moderate" drinkers.

A minimum unit price is not a silver bullet for alcohol-related harm
Professor Ian Gilmore
Alcohol Health Alliance chairman

So far it has restricted only what it deems the most irresponsible promotions of alcohol such as "drink what you like" offers.

Shops and supermarkets can still promote large discounts such as buy-one-get-one-free offers.

The Sheffield researchers say establishing a minimum price, as well as restricting promotions, would be the most effective way to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

This, they say, would help stop younger people bingeing on cheap alcohol and stop heavy drinkers loading up on strong "bargain" booze.

But it would also have a big impact on the health of moderate drinkers - men drinking three bottles of wine or 21 or fewer units per week, and women drinking a bottle and a half of wine or 14 units or fewer.

'Compelling evidence'

A 50p limit would cut a moderate drinker's weekly intake by about 3.5%, or half a unit for women and two-thirds of a unit for men.

Although this may not sound much, Dr Robin Purshouse and his team say it equates to a lot over time.

It would slash rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

Their calculations show a 50p limit would mean 2,900 fewer premature deaths a year as well as 41,000 fewer cases of chronic illness.

Dr Purshouse said: "When you look at the range of benefits, it's not just the illnesses that people would associated most commonly with alcohol and heavy drinking, although those will also go down.

Supermarkets are driving a culture of sensible drinking by using unit labelling to help people regulate how much they drink
Andrew Opie
British Retail Consortium

"In terms of the overall burden, about 20% is for moderate drinkers who make up half of the population."

Don MacKechnie, vice-president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said it was time minimum pricing was taken onboard by policy makers.

And Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: "A minimum unit price is not a silver bullet for alcohol-related harm. It represents just one of a raft of measures, but to omit it from policy would be to disregard the compelling evidence supporting it."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said alcohol misuse was a complex problem which they were working "harder than ever" to tackle.

"We are determined to take action on cheap alcohol and continue to look at issues around price," she said.

The Scottish Government may go further and introduce a minimum price of 40p per unit if its debated Alcohol Bill is passed.

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium says minimum pricing is a blunt tool which penalises responsible drinkers.

"Supermarkets are driving a culture of sensible drinking by using unit labelling to help people regulate how much they drink, preventing underage sales and backing the Drinkaware Trust."

The Conservatives said instead of raising taxes on all drinks, they would want targeted increases in duty on problem drinks like super-strength beers and action against below-cost selling.

The British Society of Gastroenterology, while strongly supporting the call for minimum pricing, wants to see stronger NHS services to immediately help those with alcohol-related diseases.

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