This week’s budget announcement saw Chancellor George Osborne turn his back on Britain’s public services that are struggling to cope with the burden alcohol poses; on our communities plagued by alcohol related crime and violence; and on our vulnerable children and families who suffer as a result of others who drink.
In an apparent bid to enhance popularity with ‘hardworking people’, the Chancellor has cut beer duty by two per cent and frozen planned duty increases on cider and spirits, a move the Treasury predicts will result in a loss of £290 million to the Exchequer and increase overall alcohol consumption.
This comes at a time when society simply cannot afford for cheap drink to get cheaper. In the absence of a minimum unit price – a policy once championed by Prime Minister David Cameron – the current ‘floor price’ for alcoholic drinks is set by rates of duty plus VAT, which in practice means strong white cider (ABV 7.5 percent) can be sold for six pence per unit and distilled spirits can be sold for 32 pence per unit.
Alcohol is 61 percent more affordable today than it was in 1980, partly because duties, particularly for cider, wine and spirits, are at historically low levels. Over the past twenty years UK alcohol consumption rates have increased considerably, with particular concerns raised about young women. Between 2002-2010 alcohol related hospital admissions for females aged 16-24 increased by 76 percent, which has been linked to consistently high levels of drinking.
Alcohol harm costs our society in excess of £21bn annually, which includes costs to the health service, criminal justice system and loss of productivity in the workplace. In England there are 15,400 deaths, 1.2 million hospital admissions, and almost one million crimes related to alcohol each year. The harms caused by alcohol are by no means limited to drinkers themselves. Our frontline workers, including nurses, police and ambulance crews, spend an exorbitant amount of time mopping up the mess that alcohol causes day in day out, and sooner or later something has to give.
There is strong and consistent evidence from the UK and abroad that addressing the affordability of alcohol is one of the most powerful tools a government can use to tackle problems related to excessive drinking. In 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron committed to “coming down hard on cheap alcohol” in the Government’s Alcohol Strategy, when he announced proposals to introduce a minimum unit price. He said: “the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Yet these statements are now obsolete. Minimum unit pricing, which if set at 50 pence per unit, promised to save almost 1,000 lives and prevent 50,000 crimes each year, was shelved last year following an aggressive lobbying campaign from the drinks industry and wobbles within government about the cost of living. This is in spite of evidence to show it would lead to greater benefits in terms of health outcomes amongst low income heavy drinkers – thus directly tackling health inequalities without unfairly penalising moderate drinkers – and real-life data from Canada that saw alcohol related deaths fall by 32 percent following a 10 percent increase in minimum prices.
The substitute for minimum pricing brought forward was the ban on ‘below cost sales’, yet this too has been weakened following the Budget announcement. It would appear that the government has lost sight of its commitment to protect vulnerable citizens, support our frontline workers and create safer communities for everyone. When will it get back on track with doing the right thing?