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Study claims minimum pricing cuts alcohol-related deaths

By Reevel Alderson
BBC Scotland's social affairs correspondent

image captionAlcohol-related deaths fell when minimum prices rose

Research published in Canada has linked the introduction of minimum pricing with a significant drop in alcohol-related deaths.

The findings, in the journal Addiction, were welcomed by health campaigners.

But they have been criticised as "misleading and inaccurate" by the drinks industry, which has questioned the statistical basis of the research.

The Scottish government's plans to introduce a minimum unit price are on hold pending a court challenge.

The researchers said a rise in alcohol prices of 10% would lead to a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths.

The Canadian study was carried out between 2002 and 2009 in British Columbia, where alcohol could only be sold directly to the public in government-owned stores.

It suggests that, when drink prices rose, there were "immediate, substantial and significant reductions" in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol abuse.

The authors suggest increasing the price of cheaper drinks reduces the consumption of heavier drinkers who prefer them.

Dr Tim Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, said: "This study adds to the scientific evidence that, despite popular opinion to the contrary, even the heaviest drinkers reduce their consumption when minimum alcohol prices increase.

media captionDr Tim Stockwell: "Alcohol related deaths of a particular kind, and those that are entirely caused by alcohol, they go down substantially."

"It is hard otherwise to explain the significant changes in alcohol-related deaths observed in British Columbia."

During the period under study, the law changed in Canada, permitting private liquor stores to open.

A 10% growth in the number of such outlets was associated with an increase (2%) in all alcohol-related deaths.

This is the first study to highlight the effects on mortality of alcohol minimum pricing, although the Scottish government has used previous research from the University of Sheffield to claim consumption of alcohol would be reduced if prices rose.

'Saving lives'

It has been welcomed by health campaigners. Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) said it was further evidence that minimum pricing will be effective.

Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive, said: "This is important evidence which shows that minimum pricing is saving lives in Canada and will save lives in Scotland.

"Increasing the price of the cheapest alcohol through minimum pricing has the biggest effect on the heaviest drinkers who are most at risk of alcohol-related illness and death."

She criticised drinks organisations who have challenged the Scottish government's plans to introduce minimum pricing.

MSPs passed The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 in May 2012, setting a 50p minimum unit price as part of an effort to tackle alcohol misuse.

However, the government has undertaken not to introduce the measures until after the conclusion of the challenge brought at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and several European wine and spirits bodies.

They argue that it breaches EU trade rules.

A consultation in England and Wales for a 45p minimum unit price ended on 6 February and similar plans are being considered by the Northern Ireland government.

An SWA statement said the experience of Canada, where there is no minimum unit pricing, was different to that in Scotland.

It added: "The claims made by the Canadian researchers are not supported by official data from Statistics Canada which show alcohol-related deaths in British Colombia rising by 9% in the period, not falling as claimed.

"This compares with a drop in alcohol-related deaths in Scotland of 25% since a peak in 2003. This would suggest measures already in place in Scotland to tackle alcohol misuse are working."

The chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Association (WSA), Miles Beale, also attacked the research.

"There is not a simple link between alcohol price and harm," he said.

"Consumption is more likely to be related to cultural factors and that the increase in price does not impact on these significantly. The industry is committed to tackling problem drinking and its consequences, but minimum unit pricing will not do that."

More on this story

  • The battle over alcohol pricing