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Government U-Turn on Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in England

The minimum unit pricing of alcohol (MUP), supposedly the key component of the UK Conservative led Coalition Government’s alcohol strategy for England, has been abandoned, though officially the Government’s position is that it has been deferred until additional evidence is gathered to support its introduction.This is despite Prime Minister David Cameron having made a personal pledge to introduce MUP. However, the Scottish government will continue with its plan to introduce MUP in the coming months.

In his introduction to the Government’s national alcohol strategy for England, published in March 2012, David Cameron said:

“We can’t go on like this. We have to tackle the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking. And we have to do it now.

“……. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol. When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub. So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit. We are consulting on the actual price, but if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade.”

MUP is a method of reducing the affordability of alcohol by making it illegal to sell alcohol below a set price per unit, and the policy is intended especially to tackle the problem of cheap alcohol from supermarkets and off-licensed outlets. In the UK, most alcohol is now bought from the off-trade, and some types of alcohol can be bought cheaply despite the UK having some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe.

The decision to renege on the Prime Minster’s personal pledge on MUP was fiercely attacked by alcohol control advocates as a betrayal of the public health and a surrender to intense lobbying by commercial interests. As well as abandoning MUP, the Government also announced that it was no longer planning to introduce a ban on discounted multi-buy alcohol promotions in supermarkets, and the introduction of plain packaging of cigarettes has been ‘postponed’.

The attitude of health campaigners was summed up by the comment by a Conservative Party Member of Parliament, a former family doctor and advocate of MUP, Sarah Wollaston. She tweeted: “(Rest in Peace) public health. A day of shame for this government; the only winners big tobacco, big alcohol and big undertakers.”

The great majority of alcohol control and public health organisations support the introduction of MUP, and there is, in fact, a mass of evidence to support the claim that it is probably the single most effective measure the Government could take to reduce alcohol morbidity and mortality. MUP would also be expected to reduce alcohol-related crime and lost productivity in workplaces.

Following the latest announcements, all that is left of the alcohol strategy for England is a number of measures which the public health lobby regard as little more than cosmetic exercises favoured by the alcohol industry but which are unlikely to have any real impact on levels of alcohol consumption or harm.

While intense lobbying by some sectors of the alcohol industry has undoubtedly played an important role in defeating MUP in England, there were also other factors involved. Opinion in government on the merits of MUP was divided, some senior ministers being opposed to it because they thought it would alienate voters and penalise moderate drinkers. Some also believed MUP to be regressive, penalising the less affluent, a kind of tax on the poor. The European Union also challenged MUP as possibly illegal under EU competition law. However, none of these arguments has swayed the Scottish government, which
clearly intends to press ahead with the measure, convinced it will save lives, and have a range of other social and economic benefits.

Australia: alcohol industry defeats alcohol discount ban

In a development that appears to mirror events in the UK, the Australian alcohol industry has been described as having ‘strongarmed’ the Government of the state of New South Wales into retreating from its plan to ban heavy discounts on multi-buy alcohol purchases.

Fairfax Media, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, obtained correspondence between the government department concerned and the alcohol industry that shows the pressure that resulted in it removing the ban in new guidelines on alcohol promotion. The guidelines, which determine which promotions are unacceptable under the Liquor Act, were significantly weakened by the alcohol industry as, according to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), it ‘dictated’ line-byline changes to the original document.

The SMH reports that New South Wales Police Assistant Commissioner, Mark Murdoch, had complained about the availability of cheap alcohol from bottle shops and linked it to domestic violence. Health groups had also complained that bulk discounting of takeaway liquor encouraged binge drinking by young people. However, the SMH says that a five-year review of the liquor promotion guidelines excluded public submissions, “and instead allowed the liquor industry to vet the new rules.”

Internal emails show that government officials wanted to ban steep discounting in bottle shops, and early drafts warned that ‘‘price wars’’ by bottle shops risked encouraging people to buy large amounts of alcohol that could lead to excessive drinking. Discounts of more than 50 per cent were listed as ‘‘unacceptable’’ promotions in the draft released for industry comment last August.

But, in the final guidelines, these measures were substantially weakened.

Greens MP, Dr John Kaye commented that the opportunity to respond to public health evidence on the impact of alcohol promotions on young people had
been ‘‘subverted by the industry’’.

‘‘Successive drafts were substantially weakened to suit the commercial interests of the bottle shop owners, and in particular, Coles and Woolworths,’’ Dr Kaye said. The SMH also reports that The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s Chief Executive, Michael Thorn, was refused access to the draft guidelines, and told he could not make a submission on more than 100 studies showing the cheaper alcohol was, the more people consumed, and young people were at particular risk of being influenced by extreme discounts. ‘‘We were rebuffed … ... It’s absolutely inappropriate that the liquor industry should have had so much influence,’’ he said.

Photograph of Prime Minister, David Cameron, courtesy of Wikimedia under the Open Government Licence v1.0