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 45.

    Brits have been known as a nation of drunks who can't hold their alcohol since pre-roman times.

    I doubt a minimum price will change this.

    What is needed is existing laws being ENFORCED. IE pubs/clubs should not serve those who have obviously had too many.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @36. Zakmann
    You are right, taxes do provide those things, and also subsidies to rich bankers who continue to take massive bonuses, 'golden parachutes' to disgraced cabinet ministers....
    Worse is that minimum pricing is NOT a tax, it is merely putting in a legal framework for brewers to make more profit.
    One plausible way of cutting drinking is to provide non-alcohol at lower prices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The UK's drink problem is not about cheap alcohol in supermarkets.It's about binge drinkers who smash up town centres etc-and what they've drunk is bought in pubs/clubs.People don't buy cheap alcohol at the supermarket,get wasted at home,then stagger into town to have a fight.This is a product of our service economy.Used to be less drink problems with drinking after a day's graft down the pit etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I'm all for learning from what has been developed elsewhere. BUT the cultures are entirely different and the reasons for alcohol abuse and the social and cultural background do not lend themselves to comparision.

    Poorly researched piece of 'opinion' from the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The "I stay at home & drink" folk who think this is a bad idea should try working in an A&E on a Friday or Saturday night. This would be one small step forward (of hopefully many) to tackle the deeply embedded binge drinking problem that this country faces. Drinking yourself silly until you hurt yourself and others is not something a progressive, forward-thinking country like the UK should ignore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    This is a pointless exercise. Prices in bars, nightclubs and bars are already quite high and have little impact on what people drink. Taxes on cheap alcohol will merely lead to the development of a black market, homebrewing and other activities pushing it out of the public control and you'll still get idiots chucking up on the high street.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    The closest pub to me has already raised their Stella pint price to £4. And for that reason, I'm out.

    Didn't like the place anyway. Full of drunks talking rubbish; half of them with drink related illnesses, the other half drink related relationship problems. And the place stank of stale beer and stale farts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    There are NO definitive figures for how tax increases actually alter alcohol consumption, chances are it increases it - in that the alternatives (e.g. home brew / moonshine) have a generally higher percentage of alcohol than the regulated alternatives

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "Min pricing will hurt the poor, who will forego necessities to indulge in 1 of the few affordable luxuries they have left. If they drink to excess, it's their free choice" - yawn, so sick of hearing about the ill defined "poor". Doesn't mean anything anymore, just a mawkish leftie dog whistle. However, there is a right to not have your life dictated by state bullies, so we agree overall...

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Here they crawl out of the wood work. The socially unaware and irresponsible and the apparently uneducated.

    Taxes provide roads, police, foot paths, rubbish collection, sewers, clean water, schools, armies, public builds, art galleries, museums, public transport and the list goes on.

    This obsession with MY MONEY and Taxes in this country is sickening!

    No taxes means none of the above.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    And will the money raised from this tax go on educating youngsters on how to drink responsibly, so that the tax can eventually be removed? Hell no, it'll go on funding the MPs' 32% salary rise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @8. Paul J Weighell
    If you choose a graph well enough you can show almost anything. Try looking further back... we consume a fraction of the alcohol consumed in 1900. In fact if you go back before that we consumed even more when water was unfit to drink unless it had been brewed.
    Then you have cause and effect, unless alcohol was the only change you can't attribute the better health to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Another issue which seems highly misunderstood is how this will affect people; it won't affect responsible drinkers by more than a couple of pounds a month. However, it will target people drinking very low quality alcohol such as 2L bottles of cider, £2 bottles of wine, 7£ litre bottles of no brand spirits; mainly high risk drinkers and underage drinkers.

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "Predicting behavioural change is difficult"
    Another example of the wealthy political elites treating people like they are blobs of clay to be shaped. We don't they reform themselves, that task would be hard enough.

    Min pricing will hurt the poor, who will forego necessities to indulge in 1 of the few affordable luxuries they have left. If they drink to excess, it's their free choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Why should drinking at home be more expensive?
    I don't go to pubs as don't like them, preferring to drink responsibly in the comfort of my home.

    Alcohol in pubs *should* be more expensive to cover their overheads.
    As for pubs being able to monitor and prevent excessive drinking - give me a break, if they were doing this already we wouldn't have such a problem on our streets at closing time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    A 10% increase in tax led to an 8% fall in "recordable" alcohol consumption. What isn't reported in these figures is the increase in home brew, illicit alcohol (moon-shine & the likes), & black market trade. The 10% tax increase led to probably at most a 1 or 2 % decrease in consumption among certain groups, & an increase for those who found an alternative cheaper source.


  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    23 "Taxes are paid to benefit all society not just you!" - absolutely not, they are taken from me and used to unfairly support the lazy, the feckless and the latest cause de celebre. To bully people financially in order to impose your own morality is a form of totalitarism. Sick of hearing holier than thou preaching, "shut up an pay", no, why should we.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Increasing prices will decrease consumption of alcohol, but the decrease will mainly be seen amongst responsible drinkers.

    Alcoholics will still find ways to fund their habit.

    Friday / Saturday night youngsters that drink to excess and cause trouble in towns and hospital A&E will still do so as they have so much disposable income.

    Theft may also rise to fund some people's drink.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Minimum pricing is hitting a large group of citizens who never turn up in A&E drunk the middle class and old age pensioners. Sorry the simple way to stop bing drinking is first time A&E £200 next time £500 and third time £1,000.00 immediately collectable from the person or their family. This would stop the "bodies" in the streets at 1am - No where else in Europe one has this.


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