Minimum alcohol price for England back under consideration – by Jim Pickard and Scheherazade Daneshkhu

Proposals for a minimum unit price for alcohol in England are back on the table, five years after they were last rejected, a minister told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Steve Brine, a junior health minister, said the government was committed to tackling all alcohol-related harm. “That’s why we are developing a new alcohol strategy and as part of this I’m commissioning Public Health England to undertake a review of the evidence for minimum unit price in England,” he said.

The Scottish government has just brought in a new law setting the minimum price of alcohol at 50p per unit, meaning a 70c bottle of whisky cannot be sold for under £14 and a bottle of wine must be over £4.50.

logo Scotland’s Minimum Unit Price for alcohol

The previous Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in London had pledged in 2012 to bring in the policy, but scrapped it a year later after sustained lobbying by the drinks industry. At the time it said there was insufficient evidence that the policy would reduce problem drinking without penalising responsible drinkers.

Mr Brine said that when the government previously consulted on the issue in 2013 the evidence was “not entirely conclusive” but suggested that may or may not still be the case: “That’s why the government will keep the policy under review.” The minister added that the Westminster government would keep an eye on the early results of the Scottish experiment: “We will be watching that like a hawk.” In 2016 a review commissioned by the government appeared to suggest that minimum unit pricing was needed to tackle the impact of drink-related harm.

The study by PHE found that drink was now the biggest killer of people aged 15-49 in England, as a factor in more than 200 different illnesses. “Implementing an MUP [minimum unit price] is a highly targeted measure which ensures any resulting price increases are passed on to the consumer, improving the health of the heaviest drinkers who experience the greatest amount of harm,” the report said, adding that the policy would have “negligible” impact on moderate drinkers.

Neil Gray, an MP for the Scottish National Party, welcomed Mr Brine’s comments, saying he hoped it would spell the “end days” for strong white cider sold at “pocket money prices” in shops. “The BMA (British Medical Association) has long called for this,” he said. But Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said the “vast majority” of people in the UK enjoyed a drink responsibly — while consumption was falling over the long term. “MUP has never been tried anywhere in the world, is untargeted and has already proved complex and costly to introduce,” he said. “The Scottish Government’s policy will increase the price of around half of the alcohol on supermarket shelves and will impact most drinkers, particularly those on lowest incomes.”

Mr Beale argued that the policy was likely to be ineffective in changing the behaviour of problem drinkers: “It will be vital that the UK government assesses the impact on businesses and on consumers of the MUP experiment in Scotland. It will need to be rigorously and objectively monitored and evaluated over time.” Last November the UK Supreme Court cleared the way for the Scottish government’s ban, rejecting a legal challenge from the drinks industry and thus removing a potential obstacle for other governments to follow suit.

The Irish government is moving ahead with plans for minimum alcohol pricing while the Welsh assembly is also examining similar plan According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, six countries operate some form of minimum pricing for drinks, including Canada, Russia and some states in the US.

ft logoJim Pickard and Scheherazade Daneshkhu, 2018 “Minimum alcohol price for England back under consideration” Financial Times 8th May. Used under licence from the Financial Times.© The Financial Times Limited [2018]. All Rights Reserved.

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