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Pricing, including taxation, is a key tool to address harm from alcohol and is identified by the World Health Organization as a ‘best buy’ policy (meaning it is both effective in reducing harm and cost-effective). However alcohol was 72% more affordable in the UK in 2020 than in 1987.
Generally, UK alcohol duty rates are reviewed annually, with an announcement made at each Budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. From 2008 there was a ‘duty escalator’ – where alcohol duty increased by 2% above the rate of inflation. This was phased out in stages between 2012-2014. Thereafter, real terms cuts to alcohol duty – through either cuts or freezes to existing rates – took place in most years up to 2023. In August 2023, new alcohol duty structures also commence, following a major review.
In light of varied decisions made, this research assesses what arguments have been made and what messaging has been used in support of policy announcements and proposals on alcohol duty.
This is a qualitative study of UK government messaging on alcohol duty from 2008-23, using reflexive thematic analysis.
113 documents were analysed, including Budget speeches from Hansard, HM Treasury Budget publications, each Budget’s Finance Bill Second Reading debate in the House of Commons, HM Treasury press releases, HM Treasury’s official Twitter feed, and HM Treasury publications and policy proposals on alcohol taxation and alcohol duty.
There was a wide variety of messaging used by governments in communicating decisions on alcohol duty between 2008-23.
The six over-arching themes identified were: appealing to both continuity and change; supporting industry and business, especially the ‘Great British Pub’; contributing to public finances and improving tax structures; benefitting consumers and families; improving health and reducing alcohol harm; and, advancing fairness and simplicity.
The themes identified in this research suggest there are several apparent objectives of alcohol duty decisions, with health objectives present, but not prominent.
There were sometimes conflicting objectives, and long term strategy was not clear from policy decisions on alcohol duty, which was reflected in how decisions by the Chancellor as head of HM Treasury on alcohol duty did not always correspond to alcohol policies or strategies from other government departments. Consistency and policy coherence could be improved and public health aims better met by changing how alcohol duties are uprated, through introducing an independent commission to set duty rates and automatic uprating.
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