The battle over alcohol pricing

Saskatchewan prairie Saskatchewan started using minimum pricing in 2003

Saskatchewan is a long way from the British boozer and the aisles of High Street supermarkets.

But the experience of the Canadian prairie province could have a defining impact on our society.

The region, home to just over one million people, is one of the few places in the world to have first-hand experience of minimum pricing for alcohol.

And as such it is forming one of the key pieces of evidence as ministers weigh up whether to push ahead with what would be a controversial policy.

In England and Wales the consultation on a 45p minimum unit price finishes next week. In Scotland a 50p price has been put forward.

Evidence from Saskatchewan, which has a slightly different policy as there are different minimum prices for different types of drinks, has shown that a 10% rise in price leads to an 8% fall in alcohol consumption.

The findings are backed by Sheffield University experts who have been asked by ministers to analyse what effect a minimum price would have here.

Their work suggests the 45p proposals could cut consumption by 2.4%, which after 10 years would result in 10,000 fewer deaths and more than 300,000 fewer hospital admissions.

But of course it is not an exact science with the researchers admitting they can only give "best estimates".

Predicting behavioural change is notoriously difficult, doubly so when the intervention is aimed at something such as drinking that the public are clearly so attached to.

Unlike smoking where the government can simply say it is bad for you, the message for alcohol has to be much more nuanced as there is no evidence that drinking within recommended levels is harmful and some research has even suggested it may be beneficial to health.


And this has allowed industry, which unsurprisingly is against the introduction of a minimum price, to claim it is sticking up for Joe Public at a time when household budgets are already stretched.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association launched a campaign this week called "Why should responsible drinkers pay more?"


Miles Beale, the group's chief executive, is clear he thinks the government is making a mistake.

"Evidence shows that there is no simple link between alcohol price and harm and we do not believe that increasing the price of alcohol will effectively tackle problem drinking."

The campaign is also highlighting the fact that alcohol consumption is on the way down in the UK - dropping by 13% since 2004.

That is true, but those who support a minimum price believe drinking rates need to be seen in a much wider context.

While the last few years has seen alcohol consumption tail off, the current figure is still 40% higher than it was 40 years ago.

Where we are drinking has also changed dramatically.

In the early 1970s, 90% of alcohol was consumed in pubs and restaurants, but these days the rise in the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets means the split between drinking in and out of home is now almost 50:50.

But to many the clinching factor in support of a minimum price is that the evidence suggests it will hit the problem drinkers the hardest.

As hazardous drinkers are more likely to drink to excess and buy the cheaper alcohol, it is estimated a minimum price would cost them nearly £130 a year compared to just under £7 a year for the moderate drinker, according to the Sheffield University figures.

Dr James Nicholls, of Alcohol Research UK, believes the case for change is "compelling".

In fact, he - like many health campaigners - suggests England and Wales should consider going further and match the 50p put forward in Scotland.

"That is the price at which you begin to affect wine. It would have a much bigger impact."

Ministers certainly have much to consider.

Nick Triggle Article written by Nick Triggle Nick Triggle Health correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Obviously the more expensive something is, the more exclusive and out of reach it becomes - so yes, people will consume less. However, Canada doesn't have EU rules and regulations and countries that rely on the production and sale of alcohol as part of their economic recovery. Trade barriers within the EU are, in the main, illegal. Individual countries, however, are free to raise domestic duty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    As long people can gain easy access to alcohol they will drink and price is secondary to the heaving drinking group we are talking about.

    Supermarkets are better controlled than your corner local shop but need to reign in using it as a loss leader/promotion.

    Local clubs/pubs need to be billed for policing based upon incident levels to be more accountable for their clientele.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.


    Have you thought of the cost to the NHS that alcohol abuse causes, policing costs, the heart break when a group teenagers die due to drinking. This obsession with tax is NIMBYism @ its worst. Taxes are paid to benefit all society not just you!

    The problem with taxation in the UK is that laws are loosely applied some corporations pay next to nothing while individuals are hit hard etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Hate social engineering by tax, so patronising when the State starts trying to nanny the population. I wonder how the handwringing "do gooders" Sheffield have spun the data so 1mn people in a vast, rural wilderness is made relevant to 60mn crammed on to a tiny island. 10% increase leads to 8% drop, utter nonsense, changing the price won't make one drop of difference and we all know that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @1. 5th element
    By your comment then the obvious answer would be to ban it. And then lets ban everything that causes problems... heating causes global warming, travel kills people and blots the landscape with roads, factories pollute, breathing exhales CO2, sex produces more population, eating kills things. In fact compulsory slaughter of the entire human race is the only answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Why is there such hostility to people who prefer to drink at home? If nothing else, we don't drink-drive because we are at home already! A quiet glass of wine with my dinner doesn't impact on anyone else, yet these interfering yahoos think it appropriate to price me out of that in an attempt to social engineer people out of binge drinking & brawling in town centres.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Whether you agree with minimum pricing, one point in this article is an inaccurate representation of the evidence. The evidence which shows a benefit from drinking alcohol has been strongly refuted as misinterpreted and methodologically flawed. It is likely that any amount of alcohol is harmful and to suggest it provides health benefits is a gross misrepresentation to the public

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'm all up for having minimum pricing on alcohol but it needs to be targeted on the types of drinks that those with bad drinking habits consume- namely lager, sweet ciders and certain spirits like vodka.
    Also concentrate it on the supermarkets etc and give a break to our pubs which are really suffering and which offer a more controlled environment in which excessive drinking can be monitored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    9.Zakmann - This has NOTHING to do with litter - which is definitely a disgrace and a problem - and everything to do with making that little bit of extra cash for the government and their fat-cat pals who run the drinks industry. The rise will be far too little to make any significant difference as binge drinking is a cultural issue almost unique to the UK. Another thinly veiled tax, methinks...

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Let's put this in perspective. A minimum price per unit is not about making your occasional glass of wine more expensive - the price can be tailored to the type of alcohol.
    Ridiculously cheap alcohol is why you can't get an ambulance on a Saturday night because they're too busy scooping up your paralytic kids from the town centre and the hospital A&E is pumping their stomachs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Right here come the Why should I pay more taxes and the government shouldn't be telling Me what to do brigade.

    This country is a mess due to none regulation of the Banking sector, the country is one of the most littered and dirty that I've seem in Europe, the building industry is riddled with cowboys and the list goes on!

    All due to lack commonness laws and regulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If you set the minimum price per unit too high you're introducing prohibition and all the attendant problems that brings with it.

    What we really need is for alcohol in supermarkets to be more expensive and alcohol (with FREE soft drinks for the drivers) to be cheaper. That would persuade folks to stop drinking at home, stop getting loaded before they go out. It could spur on a revival for pubs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    So the drunks that run the country have decided that they're going to tax alcohol as it's bad for us. Reminds me of Orwell's Animal Farm - currently on iplayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Sensible price rises should be put in place. Supermarket alcohol is way, way to cheap and does need to be increased. However pub prices should be levelled out as the pub industry is in a serious decline and more hikes in prices would see the death knell of this great British institution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Pricing will do nothing to prevent problem drinking. Someone who really needs a drink will sell their grandmother to get one. A huge social change has to come about where it is not deemed acceptable behaviour to go out on the town at 10pm already plastered from the bottle of vodka you have just put away before leaving home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Until the data from Saskatchewan are analysed properly, this 'report' is meaningless. Is there any evidence that those who drink to excess and/or who cause problems when drunk have cut back on their consumption?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Minimum unit price at 45p is a bit of a joke it will not stop binge drinking or over consumption by teenagers & adults.

    Higher pricing of alcohol would help to put a stop to alcoholic drink cans and bottles that seem to litter every road and foot path in this country which is a disgrace.

    Regulation might just give the appearance that people have pride in their environment here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    #3 Saskatchewan is relevant data. Health improvements from an 8% reduction in consumption are not trivial whatever the distribution is. UK intake has increased 20% in 40 years even after the recent dip is counted. Not at all a good sign.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The Wine and Spirit Association asks: Why should responsible drinkers pay more?"

    I ask, why should everyone, including abstainers, pay more in taxes to police alcohol-related crime and treat alcohol-related illnesses?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'll drink to that


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