Minimum alcohol pricing

In a new series, agendaNi asks two sides of a policy debate to put forward their case. Our first subject, minimum alcohol pricing, is currently on the desks of the Social Development Minister and Health Minister.

Judith-Cochrane For

Judith Cochrane
Social Development Spokeswoman Alliance Party

The Alliance Party has a long record of supporting the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, with Health Spokesperson Kieran McCarthy MLA first calling for greater research on the issue in 2010. Since then the party has continued to call for the introduction of legislation to address the issue and included it in our Legislative Programme for Government 2011-2015 document, launched during the recent election campaign.

Alcohol misuse is a serious problem in Northern Ireland with research from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety estimating its cost at between £500 million and £884 million. The cost to the Health Service alone may be as high as £160 million and further annual cost to social services of £82 million. This research has also highlighted that the cost to fire and police services is in excess of £250 million and to courts and prisons is £100 million.

There are also wider economic costs, especially to business through absenteeism and unemployment, estimated at around £202 million per annum. These costs are aside from the sizeable impact alcohol can have on an individual’s life, physical and mental health. It is obvious in the current financial climate that these costs are unsustainable and any steps which can be taken to reduce these large bills must be given serious consideration, especially if it will assist in the reduction of alcohol-related illnesses and deaths at the same time.

Scottish research suggested that after the introduction of a minimum alcohol price of 45 pence per unit, there would be 50 less deaths in the first year. For Northern Ireland it is estimated that setting a minimum cost of 50 pence per unit would mean that after a decade there would be almost 3,000 fewer deaths every year and 41,000 fewer cases of chronic illness in the UK. We believe it is key that the price is set at a level that does not have a significant impact on those who consume alcohol in a moderate and responsible fashion but will help to tackle the serious issue of binge drinking and the problems that it causes.

The minimum pricing of alcohol should not impact upon those who are moderate drinkers as they do not usually opt for the cheaper alcoholic beverages that would be most affected by minimum pricing. Instead this would target the ‘harmful drinkers’ who consume around 75 per cent of all alcohol sold, and do the most harm to both themselves and society.

The vast majority of people consume alcohol responsibly, but the problems caused to society by those who don’t must be minimised, this is why the Alliance Party would be supportive of the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol as one of a wider range of measures that could help to address this issue.

Carlo-Gibbs Against

Carlo Gibbs
Public Affairs Executive Wine and Spirit Trade Association

With the recent announcement that the Scottish Government is to press ahead with minimum pricing for alcohol, focus is returning to an issue that has also been subject of much debate in Northern Ireland.

Proponents of minimum pricing are understandably concerned about the effect alcohol-related harm has on people’s lives and our communities. It is only right that the Government, the trade and other stakeholders look to develop policies which tackle this very real problem.

However, the policy response must be based on what works. While minimum pricing is the suggested answer, the reality is that the evidence does not support it. Models used by academics suggest it will cut harmful drinking. However, this has never been proven. Evidence actually shows that harmful drinkers are least responsive to price rises. This is highlighted by the fact that overall alcohol consumption in the UK has dropped 12 per cent since 2004, yet there has not been a corresponding fall in reported alcohol-related harm.

One impact of minimum pricing is that it hits the poorest hardest, as those on low incomes become priced out of the market. There is also a real danger that minimum pricing will not only do nothing to tackle problem drinking but will also damage Northern Irish businesses and economy, by seeing a reverse in the kind of cross-border trading that took place when alcohol taxes in Ireland were raised excessively.

The key to tackling alcohol-related harm lies in changing relationships with, and attitudes towards, alcohol. There is a lack of good quality alcohol education in schools and not enough is done with young people to help them avoid a negative relationship with drinking.

Different communities face different problems with alcohol. Some have problems with underage drinking, whereas others, like inner cities, see night-time economy related crime and anti-social behaviour. It therefore makes sense to support communities in developing solutions that take a localised approach to the issue, rather than pushing for a one size fits all solution.

A good example of this is community alcohol partnerships, like the one recently launched in Derry City. CAPs work to reduce underage drinking and are developed to tackle specific local problems. All relevant stakeholders are engaged in the process and partnership working is promoted. Large retailers support smaller independents with training. Clear and consistent messaging is developed and information is shared regularly. Education is also a main feature as both parents and young people are made aware of the effects of alcohol misuse and the penalties for underage and proxy purchases. This results in significant reductions in underage sales and related anti-social behaviour.

Instead of spending time on a minimum pricing policy that will have little impact on problem drinking and is likely to be subject to a lengthy legal challenge, the approach the Assembly should take is to improve the quality of alcohol education, support communities in developing localised partnership-based solutions and ensure that the law on underage and proxy sales is properly enforced.

The story so far

Minimum alcohol pricing was included in the Alcohol Etc. (Scotland) Bill, introduced by the minority SNP Government in November 2009. The Scottish Parliament voted against the measure (which involved a 45p price) in November 2010. The proposal was put forward in Northern Ireland by then Social Development Minister Alex Attwood and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in March; a range between 40-70p was suggested. The consultation closed on 26 June and the decision rests with their successors, Nelson McCausland and Edwin Poots.

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