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 65.

    I suspect that any move to minimum pricing will simply fuel the illegal alcohol market which is already well established. The so called "problem drinkers" will still get what they want and the exchequer will lose out - except that it will no doubt benefit from additional revenue from the moderate drinkers. The longer term but more effective answer is to work on changing the binge drink culture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    If it prevents people acting & looking absurd to "birdy song" & gangnam style etc, in public then I am all for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.


    Firstly the proposition: " kill more people than beer..." is a moot point, I'm OK to derive secondary causes intended.

    Min pricing on cars: you think they won't if they could? They are already successful with all vehicle related taxation, have you audited the full annual tax liability of owning a car, let alone running it?

    So gin epidemic tragedies in history was OK for you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    60. Bastiat

    I wish we could.

    These kids are not down the local park drinking bottles of expensive Chardonnay. They are getting smashed on cheap cider and drinking it like water. People in this country love playing the victim card.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Lots of things are good for society as a whole rather than individuals. The smoking ban has been a positive step in reducing smoking related diseases.
    The alcohol pricing will help reduce the many broken homes, deaths, crimes and agressive drunks in A&E.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Send them the bill for the pumping of their stomachs, they'd learn quickly not to do it again, or at all after seeing a friend get hit with it.

    Oh wait, we have a socialist NHS where everyoneone else always pay for the stupidity of others. Yay!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Surely it's up to the individual to choose whether they want to drink themselves to death? We need to push personal responsibility, not the nanny state controlling behaviour through price manipulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    How long before they start adding extra tax to everything else? This must be stopped or it will seep into other areas.
    On a lighter note, when this was first announced I went out and bought some home brew kit. I will not have my habbits, drinking or otherwise, dictated by a bunch of suited criminals, masquerading as a democratic government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    And can I just add: Is our country really okay with the thousands of 11-16 who are being admitted to A&E to get their stomachs pumped or treated for whatever injury their paralytic state has brought upon them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    15. Zackman

    Do you really believe that laws and regulations prevent things happening? We already have laws against littering, and the building industry is highly regulated, so what's going on there?

    This won't fix the problem but it will increase the number of people who are prepared to sell you "imported" alcohol from the back of a van for cash - but there's a law against that so maybe not ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Perhaps the government should look at the reason why people feel the need to drink to excess. Instead of taking steps to proactively tackle the situation these measures will just move the problem elsewhere. Namely illicitly manufactured alcohol and illegal drugs. When it's cheaper to buy hard drugs instead of alcohol, what do you think the result is going to be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.


    OK, here's how it works, I have friends & clients who own pubs:

    More & more on weekend night-outs tanked up at home before hitting clubs & bars. Sanctions & license by councils gone up, cost on bouncers, security & insurance gone up, sales & margins down.

    Consumers are stupid, but smart enough to find cheap deals.

    Boozers won't miss out on supermarket alcohol deals & loss leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    This is arbitrary price fixing of a certain product. They only harm themselves when they drink themselves into a stupor, like cigarettes. Cars kill more people than beer, if the desire truly were to save lives, why not have a minimum price on cars? There isn't. Why?
    Inconsistent morals/logic much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    41 There you have, it another holier than thou mega leftie thinks the way to ensure the UK is a "progressive, forward-thinking country" is to financially bully people into thinking the same way they do! That's right folks, "progressive, forward-thinking" means thinking exactly as josieb does and if you don't you have to pay! Just keep paying for other people's failings, that's fair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The Saskathcewan Premier Brad Wall, in power since 2007 introduced this bill, and its a matter fof some scandal there, that $15,000 worth of alcohol was allocated to the Saskatchewan Minister's office, and which Wall admitted the partaking of.

    The wealthier amongst us with Private Health cover aint bothered... they dont want to pay their NHS taxes for us Plebs that dont know whats good for us

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The people who cause the problems in our streets, and A&E's, are not drinking cheap supermarket alcohol at home: they're drinking at pub/club prices. Usually at a place they've paid a further £10/15 to get into. So a price rise will not curb their behaviour, as they can obviously already afford it. Or are the gov just hoping for a better class of lout?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Since when has a few quid prevented anyone who intends to get nutted, stop getting nutted.

    It'll probably result in some positive outcomes, but I cannot see it majorly affecting those its supposed to as the problem part of UK psyche right to abuse ourselves, is just too developed

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    38 Yes, this is the other consequence and aspect, the countries with the highest tax and most ridiculous licencing laws, the laughable "Socialist paradises" of Scandinavia also have massive rates of alcoholism, illegal brewing and distilling and general alcohol induced disruption. There is no support for this outside of BBC and its coterie of handwringing, "I know best" Nanny State buffons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Why are the BBC publicising an article about what someone can 'teach' us in the UK? Our alcohol is already overpriced and too expensive. About time the BBC stopped this kind of opinion pieces (which makes a mockery of its non bias claims) and started going back to its investigatitive journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    "...Min pricing will hurt the poor... they drink to excess...their free choice"

    and there you have it: the "poor" is merely a tool, a political platform, lefties don't care about their welfare, its their choice if they're ignorant.

    So instead of educating the "poor" about alcohol related diseases & dependencies, any financial discouragement is deemed to make them "suffer", really?


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