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 145.

    Biggest problem is the Fri/Sat drunks who are legless before they go out.Solution!!
    A)No admission to late night establishments after 9.00pm
    B)A condition of entry to be passing a breathalysor set at the drink drive limit.
    C)A 50p levy on all alchoholic drinks served after 11.00pm, ring fenced to go to local police and NHS

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.


    What do u think? :)
    You shouldn't need permission to sell to a willing customer, a drink that you made in your own house?

    You shouldn't be told by a third party, with a gun, that you must sell that drink for X £s either ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Great, I'm going to have to pay more money for alcohol for some unclear reason about reducing alcohol consumption. Another policy aimed at taking more money from our pockets while pretending to be for our benefit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    The Tories could help save pubs by stopping their beer tax escalator
    Lab introduced tax escalator
    It was Labour that changed the Licencing laws to 24/7 of which only Supermarkets use.
    13 years of Hard Labour culminated in the near destruction of the Licenced trade, with tranfer of over half of sales from Pubs & Clubs, killed Offllicences & now they are complaining ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Wouldn't need any of this minimum pricing if Govts hadn't taken the pieces of silver from the S/Market Barons to allow them to sell booze at duty free prices.
    Alco. sales were regulated through Pubs & Clubs at set hours. Offsales at OFFLicences @ reasonable prices.
    The last Govt blew this working system to hell for more pieces of silver, & caused a great deal of unemployment.
    Thanks Labour

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Yes, another stealth tax and another example of the State trying to justify what 'they' think is best for us. Whatever happened to 'Mind you own business'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    The Tories could help save pubs by stopping their beer tax escalator. Pubs are in trouble due to ever-increasing taxes. But don't blame supermarkets, that's just a convenient Tory con trick. Many people choose to drink at home and the Tories should not be imposing this huge tax hike on them for doing so, whilst making the ridiculous claim that 'it will help pubs'. It won't, it's just another tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    No government could be naive enough to think that a minimum unit price will do anything to curb drinking. It's just a stealth tax, nothing more. As long as we're still a nation run for the benefits of the barely-touchable few, with little-to-no control of our own destinies, there will always be drunks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    I don't think the problem is in PUBS or CLUBS. I see the problem is with the cheaper beer sold at supermarkets and off licences. Many people will drink to almost drunk on the cheaper beer from the supermarket BEFORE they get to the PUB. Tax the beer in the supermarket, at least PUBS have some form of control. Plus they are actually nicer places to be!

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Let's hope that the minimum pricing gets a few more people into the pubs socialising instead of vegetating at home on the sofa. We need to help save this wonederfully British institution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I agree with you completely. The state is forced to control us because there's no freedom of competition driving prices down. Welfare is a monopoly, and monopolies drive costs up.

    The US has the worst of both worlds:
    Obamacare & Medicaid (Welfare socialism); and
    Corporatism with the AMA and big Pharma lobbying congress for regulations in their favour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Just to make it clear, if you're already buying decent wine at fair prices (or beer, or indeed any other drinks), you'll probably be paying above the proposed minimum price anyway, so this won't affect you. This sets a floor price, not an uplifted price for everything.

    So stop buying the rubbish and raise your sights a bit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I pay shed loads for national insurance and I havnt needed to go to the hospital yet. If i get so paraletic that I need to be rushed to the hospital to have my stomache pumped then so be it (Which i never have/never will do). It is not YOUR money that is paying for my trip, it would be my own so stop talking as if people are actually taking money out of your banks to pay for it

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Having lived in the prairies for some years the main reason for alocholism and alcohol abuse in the prairies is well know and well researched ... BUT not even mentioned in this lightweight piece of armchair opinion.

    Absolutely appalling piece of rubbish served up as 'journalism'. BBC wasting license payers and misleading people on an important issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Playing in a band, I'm in a pub 2 or 3 nights every week.
    I see everyone from the social drinker to the binge drinker.
    I hear many people complaining about the prices but it doesn't stop them drinking. I don't drink so not affected but the Gov't should not be interfering in a business transaction or rigging the market against the very people they throw benefits at.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Bastiat 120. I entirely agree with you. In a true libertarian society, individuals should take responsibility (including financial) for their actions including insurance to pay for their healthcare. That's one of the arguments in the US against Obama's proposals. But in a welfare state such as the UK, the state can't afford that so has to impose constraints such as alcohol pricing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Govt is in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
    In Scandinavia this has already been reached & is the reason why there are a prolific number of illicit stills & breweries.
    Alcohol consumption already in decline in Britain means people are reining in the amount of money they spend on drink. It does not indicate that people now go without. I suspect many are now brewing their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    @ 117.DrJohn I do bear the costs of my actions. It is taken at the end of each month in the form of a huge tax and nation insurance bill. Then after that VAT and or duty on everything I buy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    A moral solution:

    Let people sell their products for whatever price we're willing to pay.
    Let people pay for their own healthcare and not force strangers, uninvolved in the transaction, to pay for their poor choices.
    Keep your wages, live sensibly, take out a good policy for you and your family. If you choose not to, you pay for your choices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    If you drink a sensible amount, an increase in tax isn't going to hurt your pocket very much. If you drink to excess then rasing the price may stop people drinking too much. Alcohol isn't water or bread, you don't NEED it. I agree re raising VAT on off sales and reducing it for on sales.


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