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Cameron backs minimum pricing - But his Health Secretary disagrees

Prime Minister David Cameron has come out in support of minimum unit pricing of alcohol. It was reported in the Daily Telegraph over the Christmas period that the Prime Minister will overrule Cabinet colleagues to push through plans setting a minimum price. Officials have been ordered to draw up proposals for a 40-50p unit floor price in English shops and supermarkets. A Whitehall source told the newspaper: “The Prime Minister has decided that when it comes to alcohol, something pretty radical now has to be done and he is keen on the minimum price.” The source added: “It is complicated how this can be delivered, particularly under European law, but it is clear that the voluntary approach has not worked.”

Officials drawing up the new Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, expected to be published later in the year, have been told to re-visit the issue of alcohol pricing in view of the Prime Minister’s apparent wish to go a long way beyond the Coalition Government’s existing commitment to ban ‘below cost’ sales of alcohol, a policy which has been roundly condemned by the public health lobby, and even some industry groups, as inadequate to the task of tackling the problem of cheap alcohol.

However, it is clear that minimum pricing remains a controversial policy within government, as well as among Conservative MPs. Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has previously criticised minimum pricing as ineffective, and he has warned that such a move would not meet European competition rules. That view has been echoed by the Business Department and it is understood that the Treasury has received strong legal advice to that effect. Scotland’s administration is pushing through legislation for a minimum unit price, though Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon admits it is “almost certain” to meet a legal challenge.

Problem of Cheap Alcohol

Prior to his comments to the Daily Telegraph, David Cameron had already accepted that cheap alcohol is a problem and he pledged to look “very carefully” at the issue of price controls for alcohol, ahead of the new Alcohol Strategy. The Prime Minister was speaking at Prime Minister’s Question Time on 14 December 2011, prior to a Parliamentary debate on alcohol taxation in Westminster Hall later that day. The debate was secured by Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, and was attended by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Chloe Smith MP. On the day of the debate, a group of leading health experts published a letter in the Daily Telegraph calling for the Government to take action and introduce stronger pricing policies to put an end to cheap drink sold at “pocket-money prices”. The letter was signed by 22 organisations and individuals, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the IAS. At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron referred to the letter, saying: “I have no doubt in my mind that very low cost alcohol is part of the problem in our town centres… I note very carefully the letter that’s in the papers this morning from a whole set of people with great expertise about this and we’re looking very carefully at that issue.”

However, a few days later, Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, gave an interview to the Sunday Independent in which he attacked the idea of minimum pricing of alcohol and argued that raising the price of alcohol ‘would do little to curb excess.’

The Debate

In her opening speech, Dr Wollaston outlined the importance of raising the price of cheap drink in order to reduce rates of health and social harm caused by alcohol. She said:

“Numerous studies around the world have shown public health benefits as a result of price increases and taxation policies, so is it not time for some evidence-based politics?”

Dr Wollaston argued that the Coalition Government’s current plans to introduce a floor price for alcohol that includes duty plus VAT will not deliver any “meaningful results”. Dr Wollaston added that the Coalition Government’s planned ban on ‘below cost’ sales of alcohol would only catch one in 4,000 of the drinks currently being sold “and would do nothing to save lives.” Dr Wollaston illustrated how easy it was to access cheap drink from a leading UK supermarket chain:

“Last weekend my researcher was able to access two litres of own-brand cider from Asda for £1.48, which worked out at just 18p per unit. With a four-pack of bitter for 68p, the price was just 17p a unit. I particularly objected to the labeling. It said, ‘Asda Smart Price’… there is nothing smart about charging 68p for four units of alcohol. That would send a woman well over the safe limit for a single day for just 68p.”

Dr Wollaston called upon the Government to investigate effective mechanisms for raising the price of cheap alcohol, including the introduction of a minimum price per unit, and a windfall tax for supermarkets.

Responding to the debate, Chloe Smith MP said that minimum unit pricing would be “incompatible with article 34 ….. of the European Union… That is the position.” The Economic Secretary to the Treasury also argued that the introduction of an indirect tax for supermarkets would be problematic to set up as “it would be difficult to distinguish between points of sale.” Miss Smith closed the debate by saying that “the Government are keen to hear evidence on the matter [of price]” and, in reference to the Scottish National Party’s intention to introduce a minimum unit price of alcohol, “will observe carefully what is going on in Scotland and elsewhere.”

Health Secretary opposes minimum pricing

In his interview in the Sunday Independent, Andrew Lansley said that there were “big problems” with the idea of minimum pricing, which he said would penalise the poor, fall foul of EU competition laws, and do little to tackle the kind of dangerous drinking seen in town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights. He added that a minimum price of 50p per unit would hand £600m in extra revenue to drinks firms. Mr Lansley said: “Are we really saying that because a bottle of vodka isn’t £8 but £12.50 they are not going to preload with a bottle of vodka for a night out when they are in clubs where they pay £5 for a drink? That is absurd. They are still going to do this binge drinking because that is a behaviour issue. We have got to do much more to focus on what this means.”

He did concede that higher prices for drink can reduce consumption but added:

”It is more likely to have a bigger proportionate impact on responsible drinkers who happen to be low-income households.”

The Alcohol Strategy for England is due to be published in early 2012.


Health experts’ letter to the Telegraph

SIR – Today, MPs debate the crucial issue of alcohol taxation. Each year, alcohol causes the admission of over a million people to hospital, is linked to 13,000 new cases of cancer and is associated with one in four deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.

There is a wealth of evidence to show a direct correlation between alcohol affordability and levels of harm. The House of Commons Health Select Committee state: “increasing the price of alcohol is… the most powerful tool at the disposal of a government.” In 2010, alcohol was 44 per cent more affordable than it was in 1980, a trend mirrored by an increase in cases of alcohol-related health problems and social damage.

We urgently need to raise the price of cheap drink. Harmful drinkers and young people are likely to be the most responsive to price increases. In particular, we need to narrow the price gap between alcohol in bars and restaurants with alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences, to make bulk discounts and pocket-money prices a thing of the past.

There is a push towards a minimum price for each unit of alcohol in the devolved nations of the United Kingdom, with the SNP leading the debate in Scotland. This is a simple and effective mechanism for the Scottish Government to control alcohol prices. If the Coalition is not ready for such bold action, MPs must not lose sight of the importance of taxation as a means not only to lower alcohol consumption but also to direct revenue into the public purse.

With alcohol harm costing us an estimated £25 billion each year, MPs must act now.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chairman, UK Alcohol Health Alliance and Special Advisor on Alcohol, Royal College of Physicians
Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman, British Medical Association Council
Katherine Brown, Head of Research and Communications, Institute of Alcohol Studies
Andrew Langford, Chief Executive, British Liver Trust Professor Lindsey Davies, President, Faculty of Public Health Professor
Jon Rhodes, President, British Society of Gastroenterology
Dr Dominique Florin, Medical Director, Medical Council on Alcohol
Professor Eileen Kaner, Institute Director and Professor of Public Health Research, Institute of Health and Society
Nick Barton, Chief Executive, Action on Addiction
Professor Humphrey Hodgson, Director, Institute of Hepatology, UCL
Professor Mark Bellis, Director, Centre for Public Health
Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive and General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing
Dr Chris Record, Consultant Hepatologist, Newcastle University and Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust
Dr Noel Olsen FRCP, FFPHM
Dr Jennifer R Lisle, Trustee, on behalf of the Royal Society for Public Health
Dr Marsha Morgan, Physician, University College London Medical School
Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland Dr David Snashall, Professor of Occupational Medicine, King’s College London and Honorary Consultant and Clinical Director, Occupational Health & Safety Services, Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
Professor Peter Hayes, Ex President, British Society for the Study of the Liver and Professor of Hepatology, Scottish Liver Transplant Unit, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Paul Lincoln, Chief Executive, National Heart Forum
Dr Bruce Ritson, Chairman, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems
Eric Appleby, Interim Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern