Unit pricing of alcohol on the agenda in the UK

The cost of alcohol must be increased to stem the thousands of drink-related diseases diagnosed each year, a group of medical experts said on Wednesday. Debate is on the rationality of unit pricing of alcohol across Britain.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, 19 leading doctors and academics identified “an urgent need” to raise the price of alcohol, and said “pocket money prices” must become a thing of the past. They urged the government to follow Scotland's lead and consider a minimum price for each unit of alcohol as “a simple and effective mechanism” to control prices. In November, the Scottish government made a second bid to bring in legislation which will set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol. It has already put in place a ban on “irresponsible” drinks promotions.

The letter, signed by the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Association, and the Royal College of Nursing among others, was published ahead of a parliamentary debate on alcohol taxation on Wednesday.

More than a million people are admitted to hospital each year because of alcohol, which is linked to 13,000 new cases of cancer a year, the group of experts said. One in four deaths among young people aged 15 to 24 is alcohol-related. The letter pointed to a “wealth of evidence” showing a direct link between the cost of alcohol and levels of harm. “In 2010, alcohol was 44 percent more affordable than in 1980, a trend mirrored by an increase in cases of alcohol-related health problems and social damage,” the letter stated. “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.”

The group called for a narrowing in the price gap between alcohol sold in bars and restaurants and drinks available in supermarkets and off-licenses. If the coalition government is not prepared to take the "bold action" of minimum pricing, MPs should use taxation to lower drinking levels, the medics suggest. “With alcohol harm costing us an estimated £25 billion each year, MPs must act now,” the letter urged.

A ban on selling alcohol at less than cost price will come into force in England and Wales in April 2012. Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday Prime Minister David Cameron said he was aware of the letter and was “looking very carefully” at the issue. A Department for Health spokesman said its new “alcohol strategy” would be launched early next year.

Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott called for more government action on alcohol prices, saying, “Alcohol has been too cheap for too long. There are record numbers of people being admitted to hospital for alcohol abuse. And the number of under 18s is rising steeply. All the medical evidence point to the need for a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Alcohol abuse is not just a health issue - it is a public order issue.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser to the Royal College of Physicians, said nearly 10,000 lives a year could be saved by a minimum price of 50p per alcohol unit. He told the Telegraph that the government had acknowledged the importance of price by introducing a ban on selling alcohol below cost, but said this did not go “far enough”. “We're talking about saving lives here. It's not just about damage to individuals who drink too much but their children and unborn babies and the victims of alcohol-related crime. The most effective way of targeting the heaviest drinkers is probably through a minimum unit price.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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