Committee gives cautious green light to Minimum Alcohol Pricing

(Title Image: Evening Standard)

Health & Social Care Committee
Stage 1 Report: Minimum Alcohol Price Bill (pdf)
Published: 5th March 2018

See also: All you need to know about Minimum Alcohol Pricing

1. AMs should support the principles of the Bill

The key aim of the Bill is to reduce “harmful drinking” and the number of hospital admissions relating to alcohol abuse.

Sheffield University estimates that based on updated 2017 data, the Bill would cut the number of units consumed in Wales by 3.6% and by up to 6.8% for “high risk” drinkers. It’s also estimated that it would result in up to 66 fewer alcohol-related deaths every year. The overall societal benefit is expected to be £783million spread across 20 years.

These estimates are a bit lower than previous ones in 2014.

There was broad support from Public Health Wales, alcohol charities and health bodies and no real confusion over what the Bill is trying to achieve.

2. A levy on additional profits resulting from minimum pricing should be considered

Retailers are going to make more money under a minimum pricing system. At the moment, alcohol sells for as little as 38p-per-unit for vodka or 27p-per-unit for fortified wine in a supermarket or store, compared to more than £1.40-per-unit in pubs.

A number of witnesses called for a share of the extra profits retailers make from minimum pricing to be directed towards alcohol treatment and support programmes, with a sticker on products telling consumers what percentage would go towards such a levy. The Welsh Government would consider “in principle” discussions with retailers.

An alternative to minimum pricing, raised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is changing alcohol duties/tax to address problem drinking – though research from Scotland suggests alcohol duties would have to go up by 28% to match the death-reduction rate of minimum pricing.

3. Reduction in harm should offset concerns over the policy’s impact on low-income households

Minimum pricing is expected to hit lower-income households harder because they’re more likely to drink cheaper alcohol. However, low-income households have lower drinking rates generally and their spend on alcohol is less than other income groups – so they might not be hit in the pocket as hard as previously feared and it’s actually higher-income groups who are likely to be hit harder. Any reduction in alcohol consumption will have a knock-on positive impact.

Young people were also said to be more sensitive to price changes and the policy could further reduce under-age and binge drinking, or encourage them to switch to lower-strength alcohol. This won’t matter, however, if they access alcohol through family members.

4. There are potentially serious unintended consequences

Alcohol Concern Cymru believed minimum pricing could lead to alcoholics seeking out alternatives that could prove more hazardous (I presume they mean things like meths). Retailers also felt the policy was a “blunt instrument”.

Some possible unintended consequences include: more street begging by homeless people with alcohol problems, more theft, more alcoholics turning to sex work, alcoholics may go “cold turkey” (which can be dangerous) and it could see alcoholics and other people switch to other drugs.

The Committee’s outreach work found that street drugs were often sold cheaper than alcohol. A bottle of vodka might cost £15 – and would become even more expensive under minimum pricing – but drugs like spice, ecstasy and cannabis can be sold for as little as £5-10 a gram.

The Committee recommended a thorough review of alcohol treatment services to ensure they’re future-proofed and to closely monitor the situation in Scotland once minimum pricing is introduced there.

5. Nobody expects significant cross-border issues

One common criticism of the policy – including from witnesses – is that it would encourage Welsh consumers to buy alcohol in England (particularly those living near the border) or have it delivered from England in order to get around the hike in prices.

This was partly dismissed because of the time and cost associated with travelling there and back (or having a delivery) which might wipe-out any savings, the target population for minimum pricing (hardened drinkers) mainly living away from the border and the fact hardened drinkers want to drink alcohol straight away and don’t want to travel far for it.

There were concerns about policing online sales (particularly from warehouses in England) and the potential increase in illicit/illegal alcohol – which currently isn’t deemed a problem in Wales.

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