Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Is there anything he could organize in a brewery? Comments on Minimum Unit Pricing

This post was written by Natasha Clarke, an MSc student at the University of Liverpool.

I recently attended the first annual Alcohol Research UK conference in London and wanted to focus this post on the fascinating day of talks that I was honoured to get the chance to listen to. I found the day engaging, all the talks were brilliant and inspiring and I just wanted to touch on an important issue that stuck with me on my journey home.

The most interesting for me related to MUP, Minimum Unit Pricing. Cheap alcohol is said to be a major reason for heavy drinking and talks of plans to increase the MUP to 40p or 45p have been long discussed. Its first mention of the day was by Professor Jonathan Chick and Dr Jan Gill in regards to Scotland. There it has been legislated but not yet implemented, despite the predictions of a 7.2% decrease in consumption and a reduction in hospital admissions. It was then discussed by Professor Keith Humphreys. He mentioned some facts about MUP that I must admit I wasn’t quite aware of. I know it’s a good idea but I’m never particularly good at defending its corner when my friends complain about more expensive drinks. I now have more evidence to throw back at them. It is not a taxation (it’s an increase in what the merchant charges on some beverages), and it’s not moderate drinkers who will be affected, it is heavy drinkers, because they generally buy cheaper drinks and therefore spend less per unit of alcohol. Furthermore, most beverages would not actually be affected by the change in price. Professor Humphreys interestingly mentioned that the cost to moderate drinkers would be greater with a lower MUP, due to NHS costs associated with heavy drinkers.

Evidence supporting its implementation from modelling data shows that the benefits of MUP are greater at 45p than 40p in terms of reducing consumption and health care costs in all population subgroups. Direct evidence from Canada shows that a 10% increase in average minimum price resulted in a 32% reduction in wholly alcohol attributable deaths between 2002 and 2009. This suggests the potential for great benefits, and shows promise for the future. So I go home, enlightened, and fall asleep dreaming of an improved world with a higher MUP, wake up and see an article on the BBC News discussing the uncertainty of whether Cameron will introduce the 45p per unit policy. He has now failed to commit on the pricing change, so it seems the plans may have been dropped…

Who knows what the future will hold: the evidence suggests MUP will be effective yet the government are having second thoughts. Moderate drinkers will hardly be affected, and nobody is trying to get all of us who do like a drink now and then to abstain completely. We enjoy ourselves and that’s what life is about. But the key word is moderation. Even if we don’t want to stop drinking ourselves, we should support any policy changes that might help heavier drinkers get back their enjoyment from life by cutting down on their alcohol.

The day ended with Professor the Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, who emphasised that even if public opinion is that alcoholics have made a choice and are therefore unwilling to take the steps to give them help, nobody can deny the secondary benefits that will come with reducing heavy drinking in the wider population. Maybe we can prevent innocent bystanders from being the victims of alcohol-related crimes, or free up NHS time from treating drunken injuries so they can focus on other illnesses and ailments. People think a rising MUP will punish the average drinker, but this is not the case. If we want to push change then public opinion needs to change. This can only happen when the public are informed properly about the benefits and understand the evidence. At the end of the day that is why research is conducted, to get the scientific evidence out to the public and ensure it has impact and promotes change.

See below some interesting posts from Keith Humphreys, one discussing MUP, the other on 24/7 sobriety for crime control.

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