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Health: Alcohol Minimum Pricing

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of minimum pricing policy on the level of alcohol-related conditions and admissions to hospital.

My Lords, the Home Office review of pricing policy found that increases in alcohol prices are linked to decreases in alcohol-related harms. The review also highlighted that this is a complex issue. The Government intend to ban sales of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT. This is a pragmatic first step towards setting the lowest level at which different strengths of alcohol can be sold. We estimate that it would mean about 1,500 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions per year.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, two leading advisers from the Department of Health’s own network of experts recently wrote in the Lancet that the Government,

“lacks clear aspiration to reduce the impact of cheap, readily available, and heavily marketed alcohol on individuals and on society”.

They estimate that failure to tackle drink-related problems could cost 250,000 lives over the next 20 years. How will the Minister ensure that in future the health, well-being and recovery of people with drink-related problems take precedence over the lobbying of the drinks industry?

My Lords, I make it clear that we neither have nor intend to have any sort of cosy arrangement with the drinks industry. The view that we have taken is that the food, drink and fitness industries, together with charities and public health experts, all have a huge role to play in improving our health. The industry has enormous influence in its own right. However, more than that, we believe that we have a collective responsibility to do something about this problem. That is why the industry has joined the Government in a partnership to promote and empower us all to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Through the public health responsibility deal, we are challenging industry to take action that will help consumers to live healthier lives in some areas where it is not possible or effective to regulate.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that experts on liver disease such as Professor Sir Ian Gilmore in Liverpool and Professor Chris Day and Dr Chris Record in Newcastle have identified an alarming increase in the incidence of liver disease in young people? No doubt he has read the letter in the Times this morning from representatives of the drinks industry, who say that the total consumption of alcohol in this country has fallen by 11 per cent during the past two years. However, consumption by young people is steadily increasing. Can he think of any solution by which he can overcome the problem of proxy purchasing, whereby people above the minimum age buy alcohol in bulk and pass it on to young people, who are being damaged by this process?

My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Overall consumption of alcohol is going down, but we are seeing very alarming rates of consumption among certain groups of young people. As Sir Ian Gilmore has pointed out, liver disease is appearing among the young, which is extremely worrying. The Government are determined to grasp this issue. Public health policy generally is co-ordinated by a public health Cabinet sub-committee. It will work on an alcohol strategy, which we will publish in the summer in the wake of our White Paper on public health. There is no single solution to this problem. The issue of proxy purchases, which for alcohol, I believe, is already an offence, is difficult to police and enforce. However, the noble Lord is right that we need to focus on it in our strategy.

My Lords, the original questioner mentioned public health in general, but is the Minister aware that alcohol is a cause of great disturbance in accident and emergency departments in all hospitals, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, when ordinary people who go in with injuries are subjected to very unpleasant treatment by those who are brought in following an alcohol-related incident?

My noble friend makes an extremely important point. We estimate that alcohol harm costs the NHS around £2.7 billion a year. Forty per cent of all accident and emergency admissions are in some way connected with alcohol—I think a higher percentage on Friday and Saturday nights—and 7 per cent of all hospital admissions are accounted for in some way by alcohol. This is a very serious problem: 8,500 people die from alcohol in the UK every year and there are over 1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol.

My Lords, now that the Minister and the Government have accepted that raising the price of alcohol is one of the ways in which we can minimise harm to those who are abusing alcohol, why have the Government’s recent proposals been so minimal? The cost of a can of lager will be increased, or minimised, to 38p under the new arrangements. This is hardly going to make any change whatsoever. We have to wait for the White Paper in the summer, but in the mean time why could a more positive approach to raising the cost of alcohol not have been taken and more fundamental changes made to the ever increasing easy access to alcohol, which is another problem that needs addressing?

My Lords, we view the decision to ban below-cost sales of alcohol as very much a first step. We have announced a number of other measures, as the noble Lord may know, particularly a rise in the rate of alcohol duty by 2 per cent above inflation over each of the next four years, additional duty on high-strength beers and greater powers for local authorities over local licensing decisions. As I mentioned, there is no single solution to this problem, but we are looking at a number of additional measures.