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 225.

    Unless these plans include the MP drinking quarters, they can stick their proposals up the proverbial.
    Are we "all in this together" or is there "one rule for us and one for them"?
    Condescending sanctimonious thieves the lot of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    I am sick to the back teeth of all this nannyism. Elsewhere they are now on about a sugar tax. Will you control freaks please leave us alone and give us a break ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    You cause us pain. We drink pain killer. You tax the pain killer. What next, a tax on suicide?

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    In my opinion this will not save lives at all, those who wish to drink in excess will do so no matter the price! Raising the price will just affect the rest of the population, those that enjoy a night out every now and then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    We can all debate as much as we like, but like the poll tax Scotland will get it first, we can see how it works there, the government will totally ignore the fact it fails, and dump it on the rest of us until we riot, when they will replace it with something else just as bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    Binge drinking, drinking to access, placing yourself in danger, inapropriate behaviour annoying other people, damaging your health. This is a responsible drinker ????? Think you may have drank too much

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    If I want to buy a bottle, an increase in price will not deter me, it will just mean that I have less to spend on anything else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Another thought on the Sascatchewan study. It states there was no change in sales in one other state. It does not mention the 3 other contiguous Canadian states or the 2 US states with borders. An embarrasing boom in sales?

    papaDJ sorry missed your query- the "they" are the ones already doing it I offer no opinion on socioeconomic group or age

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    I used to be an live & let live, easy going kinda guy, but since these evil muppets banned smoking in pubs, my outlook on life has changed.

    £25 a pint of beer. £30 a glass of wine and all spirits £45 a glass. Unless you are a member of government, then triple all the prices above and include a free punch in the face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    By the number of posts it looks like few drinkers are bothered or they're still mulling it over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    The study definitely registers a decrease for beer, strong wine, weaker spirits and cocktails, but again, with reasonable error ranges. For strong beer, the one they were really touting, the standard error range is a 13-31% decrease, definitely a decrease, but a fairly wide range. The consumption over time looks like it drops just after the new prices came in, then slowly increases again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Thanks for the link mr dancing gecko. One thing it always interesting to see is what the errors on these estimates are, in this case they are fairly large. For strong spirits, lower strength wine and coolers their error ranges include increases in consumption with increasing price.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Strange how the big rise started in 1997 when Blair got in and started to fall when he went!
    The supermarkets will love minimum pricing and the booze cruises will make a comeback.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Why should responsible alcholic drinkers be punished because irrisponsible drinkers are irrisponsible?
    We are supposed to be living in a free market IMO this myopic view of pricing alcholic units will ultimately reduce the jobs in the drinks industries and also reduce the amount the chancellor pockets too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    The majority of 'responsible' drinkers are binge drinkers, over-doing it infrequently.
    Wine 12.5% alc v/v, 9.4 units, at proposed Scottish 50 pence/unit, works out as £4.70 and a 440 ml can of 4.7% alc v/v beer, 2 units, £1.00.
    An occasional excessive drink at home will still be cheaper than a night on the town.
    It will not prevent problems of those drinking before going into town.
    It's false.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Responsible drinkers will possibly drink less due to minimum pricing. I know some 'binge' drinkers who when going out for an evening will take in excess of £100. They buy rounds of drinks with shot chasers handing over £40 a round or more. 45p will have little affect on their evening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    @206 The abstract states;

    There were larger effects for purely off-premise sales (e.g., liquor stores) than for primarily on-premise sales (e.g., bars, restaurants)

    SLGA is the main distributor of and sole licensing agent for the sale of beverage alcohol in Saskatchewan.

    Though this study didn't cover your other points, no doubt others are ongoing to see long term outcomes them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    Increasing price may decrease consumption but whose consumption does it decrease? Not the problem drinkers who are the ones needing hospital admission.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    The Act of Union (Scotland/England) was passed, in 1707...shortly after this, the tax on whisky escalated. This induced illegal stills and smuggling (Scotland). Then, later, the Excise Act of 1823 was introduced, which allowed production, with a £10 licence per still and a smaller tax per gallon produced. Thus, by lowering taxes, smuggling ceased...perhaps, a lesson to be learned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    #203 thanks for the link. As expected it clearly shows that the study was utterly flawed as it only measured purchasing from government controlled outlets, it in no way measured consumption or attempted to look at any other measure which would indicate decline, like drunken arrests or drink driving or hospital admisisions. All it showed is that if you increase price in a shop people shop elswhere


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