Does minimum alcohol pricing work?

Debate continues over whether increased taxes will cut alcohol-related deaths and binge drinking

The price of beer and cider in Scotland has gone up dramatically
(Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Scotland became one of the first countries in the world to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol yesterday after years of legal wrangling and opposition from drinks companies.

Following a landmark ruling against the Scottish Whisky Association in November, new laws brought in by the SNP government mean a unit of pure alcohol must now not cost less than 50p.

Proponents of minimum unit pricing argue the move will cut problem drinking and improve public health by raising the cost of cheap, strong drinks favoured by young people and binge-drinkers.

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According to the Scottish government, the increase on cheaper white ciders and value spirits will help to cut alcohol-related deaths. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Sky News the policy would result in “several hundred fewer deaths from alcohol” and lead to a reduction in hospital admissions over the next five years.

Twenty-two people die from alcohol related illnesses in Scotland every week - a problem which costs Scotland’s health system more than £3bn annually.

But not everyone is convinced, and the issue has proved hugely divisive among Scots.

Some say there is little evidence the measures will significantly reduce the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and will instead unfairly penalise the majority of non-problem casual drinkers.

“The price increases being introduced could lead to significant health improvements,” says the BBC, “but they will be felt by everybody, not only those with the unhealthiest lifestyles”.

In fact, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that heavy drinkers respond less to price increases than ordinary drinkers.

Spiked also says price increases could force some poorer drinkers to look for alternative suppliers, such as those offering smuggled, unlicensed or counterfeit booze, which will lack usual regulations and could result in more hospital admissions for alcohol related illnesses.

Supporters of minimum pricing point to figures which show the proportion of adults who smoke halved between 1974 and 2013 - at the same time as the real rate of excise duties on tobacco more than doubled.

“But higher taxes are not the only thing that affected behaviour, as awareness about the dangers of smoking also increased significantly,” says the BBC. Many argue that without a widespread publicity campaign warning of the dangers of drinking to go hand in hand with minimum pricing, the policy will lack the necessary teeth or social pressure to be truly effective.

There is also the question of how the drinks industry will respond. Some fear the new taxes could be passed on directly to customers to boost drinks companies’ profits; money which could then be used to increase promotions and advertising.

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