The impact of minimum unit pricing in the new UK alcohol strategy

by John Holmes

In March this year the UK government released its Alcohol Strategy for England and Wales. Although weaknesses in sections on treatment and the promotion of alcohol have been criticised, the Strategy has been broadly welcomed by those concerned about alcohol misuse. In particular, the commitment to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol has been hailed as a significant step forward in addressing the country’s alcohol problems. But how much impact will minimum pricing have?

Minimum unit pricing directly links the price of drinks to their alcohol content and sets a floor price below which a unit (10ml or 8g) of alcohol cannot be sold. For example, a 40 pence minimum price would mean a pint of beer containing two units could not be sold for less than 80 pence. The main evidence demonstrating minimum pricing’s potential effectiveness has been produced by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The Sheffield team built an econometric and epidemiological mathematical model, known as the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model (SAPM), to estimate the impacts of different policy options on outcomes including alcohol consumption, rates of various alcohol-related harms, consumer spending and revenue to the treasury and retailers. The model’s underlying data are a combination of UK population surveys of alcohol prices, spending and consumption and the best published evidence on the relationship between alcohol consumption and rates of various harms. As well as being the only policy model to address minimum pricing, SAPM is unique in providing estimates of policy impacts on different population groups, such as moderate drinkers, harmful drinkers and young binge drinkers. This level of detail means the results tables run to several pages, however, the key findings can be summarised in three points.

Firstly, minimum pricing is estimated to be effective if the price is set at a sufficient level. For minimum unit prices above 35 pence, significant consumption reductions are seen. Below this level, too few products are affected for there to be any meaningful impact. Debate around the new Alcohol Strategy has focused on a 40 pence minimum price and SAPM estimates this would lead to a 2.4% reduction in total alcohol consumption. Over 10 years, SAPM estimates this would mean 9,979 fewer deaths and 326,355 fewer hospital admissions. In the first year alone, it is estimated there would also be 10,100 crimes.

The second key finding is that minimum pricing is a targeted measure. A key concern of government is to ensure alcohol policies do not punish ‘responsible drinkers’. SAPM estimates that under a 40 pence minimum price, moderate drinkers would reduce their consumption by 1.2% whilst harmful drinkers would consume 4.4% less alcohol. In terms of consumer spending, this means moderate drinkers would spend just £6.94 extra per year compared to £128.16 for harmful drinkers.

Finally, the biggest impact of minimum pricing is likely to be on long-term harmful drinkers not young binge drinkers. UK evidence suggest young binge drinkers purchase most of their alcohol in the on-trade and consequently pay prices significantly above those charged in the supermarkets and off-licenses which would be affected by minimum pricing. SAPM results reflect this and suggest 18-24 year olds who drink at hazardous levels will see notably smaller reductions in their consumption under minimum pricing than hazardous drinkers as a whole. The new alcohol strategy stresses the government’s determination to tackle binge drinking and media debate in the UK has focused on minimum pricing’s ability to contribute to this; however, SAPM suggests that although minimum pricing can make a contribution, it should instead be welcomed as a measure to tackle the problems of long-term drinking at harmful levels.

For further information, visit the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group’s website.