Thursday, March 13, 2008

The price is wrong for our drinking problem

It would be disingenuous to claim that increased taxation represents the "silver bullet" when it comes to Britain's problematic relationship with alcohol.

Indeed, research makes it clear that the drivers of consumption are complex. However, a genuinely effective harm reduction strategy requires both controls on the supply and the demand for alcohol.

For that reason, Alcohol Concern continues to argue for multi-faceted work that incorporates consistent, high quality information for consumers, greater corporate social responsibility on the part of the drinks industry, better treatment and support for chronic drinkers to bring their drinking down to more sustainable levels, and, inevitably, tighter controls on price.

The view that the price of alcohol influences how much a society drinks is one that is shared by virtually the entire international public health community. Alcohol now costs the British drinker less than half what it did in 1980.

At the same time, more than eight million people drink at harmful levels in the UK. We also know that chronic alcohol-related conditions like liver disease have multiplied by nearly 200 per cent in the last 10 years, and that there is now a clear trend towards people dying from alcohol-related causes at younger ages than before. The social and economic cost is also considerable – the Cabinet Office estimates it to be in the region of £20bn.

Developments like these have led us to argue that the Government needs to increase taxes on alcohol in today's Budget to the extent that there is a 10 per cent increase in prices across the board. Analytical work predicts that such a price rise would cut premature, alcohol-related deaths by up to 37 per cent in this country. This work is complemented by a range of other studies that have also found that increasing the price of alcohol can reduce road accidents and fatalities, workplace injuries, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and various kinds of violent crime.

Cheap alcohol is particularly relevant for under age, and heavy drinkers. The fact that teenagers are now drinking twice as much as they did 20 years ago is very likely to be related to alcohol's growing affordability.

In November last year, Alcohol Concern collected price information from random supermarket branches throughout London. The aim was to discover how far a teenager's allowance could actually go for those who manage to buy alcohol, either in person, or through a proxy.

It found that with the average teenager's weekly pocket money, a person can afford to buy as much as three times the daily recommended limit in premium alcohol brands alone.

Higher alcohol taxes would help to protect young people by curtailing their ability to source alcohol independently.

Raising alcohol taxes has the added advantage of helping to dismantle certain health inequalities. People from professional or "middle class" homes are far more likely to buy alcohol regularly, and to drink above the recommended levels, yet "alcohol-related harm" is borne largely by those from routine or manual backgrounds.

There is ample evidence to suggest that price increases t
hrough taxation would have an effect on consumption levels for those for whom alcohol takes up a large proportion of their income.

Driving down the amount that people from poorer backgrounds drink may therefore reduce the disproportionate health burden that heavy drinkers in those groups bear.

To achieve these aims, prices would need to rise uniformly across the drinks market. At the moment, supermarkets and other major off-licence chains have enough purchasing power to demand that drinks producers absorb any increases in duty rates so that they can continue selling alcohol at deep discounts.

To protect the integrity of alcohol taxes, we propose therefore that the Government needs additionally to introduce legislation to prevent both the on and off trade from selling below a fixed retail price.

source: Yorkshire Post

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