Science News

Last Round for Budget Booze

Wed, 14th Sep 2011

Emily Seward

Work published this week by Professor Martin Hagger from Curtin Univeristy in Australia proposes a minimum price per unit of alcohol in the UK.  Alcohol awareness has increased with campaigns aimed at alerting people to health risks, but this proposal could be the last round for budget booze.

CiderThe problems of alcohol abuse are evident.  Three out of every hundred men in Liverpool are being admitted each year to hospital for alcohol related problems.  This totals an annual cost of more than £7.3 billion to the tax payer.

It's thought that this is brought about in part due to the widely available ‘budget’ alcohol that can be less than 20p per unit.  To relate this to another recreational drug, cocaine, it is one hundred and sixty times more expensive to buy 1g of cocaine (about £40) than 1g of alcohol (about 25p).

Supermarkets in particular use cheap alcohol as a hook to draw in buyers.  The discounts they offer are effectively subsidised by the rest of the weekly shop.  The hope is that by preventing such offers, which take the price of alcohol below the minimum of 50p per unit, it will encourage other discounts on items such as fruit and vegetables.  This plan would in effect prevent moderate or non-drinkers from continually subsidising discount beverages.

Far from being a blanket increase in cost, they propose that narrowing the price gap between budget and premium alcohol will have the desired effect.  This proposal therefore wouldn’t impact on the price of beer in a pub, or a glass of wine in a restaurant as they are already charging well above the proposed minimum.

Not surprisingly, producers of the drinks are also in support and although skeptics may argue that all this will do is line the alcohol manufacturers’ pockets, a recent study has suggested that a minimum of 50p per unit would reduce alcohol consumption in the UK by roughly 7%.  This would have the huge impact of saving up to £10 billion in costs associated not only directly to alcohol related injury, but also with the management and policing associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcohol abuse is an ever increasing problem but with a combination of additional awareness and legislation, perhaps we can put a stopper in “budget booze”.

Interview with Professor Martin Hagger

M Hagger (2011), The Cost of Alcohol: The Advocacy for a Minimum Price per Unit in the UK, (in press).

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In answer to the question, NO but there should certainly be a maximum.
People should have the choice to buy cheap alcohol if they want but through education they should be made aware of the risks involved.  Big brother should have no power to control what people do or consume through something as immoral as price fixing.  Let's face it, alcohol is the panacea of the masses and if you live in Britain then you probably need (but can't afford) it. MikeS, Mon, 19th Sep 2011

That may be, but I'm guessing that 1g of cocaine has a much bigger physical/psycological 'hit' than 1g of alcohol too...
Therefore the comparison is somewhat meaningless.
techmind, Mon, 19th Sep 2011

Does your idea of a "maximum" price mean that my old single malt scotch will be subsidised or that I won't be able to buy it. Or does it mean that you didn't think it  through? Bored chemist, Tue, 20th Sep 2011

You'r right, I was thinking of 'run of the mill cooking sherry' not speciality spirits. 
As my excuse I had consumed a few beers when I wrote that.   

Nevertheless, virtually all spirits in the UK are grossly overpriced because of tax.  There is no reason why your single malt would have to be subsidised, just reduce the tax. MikeS, Tue, 20th Sep 2011

Alcohol represents the cause of one of the biggest costs to the NHS one way or another.

It is a bit of a misconception that only the cheapest booze is solely to blame w.r.t. alcohol's influence on societies woes.  There are plenty of less visible costs to our society than just rowdy youth on a Saturday night. How about all the longer-term diseases that come from continued over-drinking? These are as much a middle-class problem as a blue-collar issue these days.

I'm a member of CAMRA and I am always exalting the benefits of the real -living- product that is proper 'Real Ale', but lowering Tax across the board on beers, wines and spirits is going to do nothing for the health of the nation, and that includes the more affluent buyers.

Personally I think any beverage that involves a brewing process that is closer to an industrial chemical works (your fizz largers and pretend ciders, etc) should pay a tax premium over traditional brews (I mean those that are served 'live' or are in bottled condition) - afterall the cost of manufacture and cellarmanship will offset these savings.    Conversely, if you think about how a pint of cheap fizz at the bar costs the same for the drinker as a pint of real ale or real cider (products that take far more work to make and keep) it's a real moneymaker for the landlord to sell SH.. mass-produced rubbish. peppercorn, Tue, 20th Sep 2011

Since I quite like the idea of the government having money to pay public employees (like me), I think they need to get that money from somewhere.
So they have to tax something.
From my personal point of view, I'd sooner they taxed luxuries like alcohol than things like food and clothing.
If there's a knock-on effect where that price rise also reduces the harm done by drinking, then I don't see that as a bad thing.
Mind you I agree that taxing the hell out of fizzy lager would be a good place to start. Bored chemist, Tue, 20th Sep 2011

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