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Alcohol: Minimum Unit Pricing

Volume 789: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the cost benefits to the National Health Service and police of introducing minimum unit pricing for alcohol in England.

My Lords, data from the Sheffield University alcohol policy model in 2015 estimated that, in 10 years, minimum unit pricing could on an annual basis reduce alcohol-related deaths by 356, alcohol-related hospital admissions by 28,515, and crime by 34,931 crimes. Minimum unit pricing remains under review and the Government will consider the evidence of its impact once it is available.

My Lords, figures issued today by the Institute of Alcohol Studies suggest that, for each hour worked, it is possible to buy three times as much supermarket beer as was the case 30 years ago. Given the statistics which the Minister cited from the University of Sheffield, is it not urgent that we act to prevent the sale of perhaps four cans of beer in a supermarket for as little as £1?

As I said, the Government are looking at this issue and, following the Supreme Court judgment, the Scottish Government can move ahead with their plans. The issue is not about the lack of evidence on whether reducing drinking has health benefits, but about making sure that any new system is implemented in a way that is fair on those who drink sensibly, particularly those on low incomes. The approach we have taken up to now is to use the tax system judiciously, including high duty levels for drinks such as white cider. As we move ahead and look at the evidence, we have to consider not just the health benefits but the economic costs that could be imposed on perfectly sensible drinkers.

My Lords, liver disease, unlike cancer, is the only major cause of premature death that has increased since 1970. As the Minister rightly says, the Scottish Government have this week introduced minimum unit pricing. Would the Minister be willing to meet me and the chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance to discuss what we in this country can do to follow the Scottish lead?

In terms of austerity, can the Minister justify neglecting the £3.2 billion cumulative reduction in alcohol-related harm over five years that the Public Health England evidence review into the policy cites with an MUP of 60p? That is what would be generated.

As I have said, and reiterate to the noble Baroness, we will look at the impact of minimum unit pricing. We must not just take into account any revenue that we generate and the health benefits that could accrue, but make sure that it provides a fair deal for those who drink sensibly.

My Lords, the report of the University of Sheffield referred to earlier said that the top 30% of drinkers consume 80% of all alcohol consumed, as measured in pure ethanol; and that, of the beer sold in supermarkets, a disproportionately high amount is sold on promotion—and much of that well below 50p per unit. Does the Minister agree that a floor in the unit price of alcohol would help to yield a more orderly, content and healthy society by bearing down on demand?

The statistic mentioned by the right reverend Prelate is in a way even more alarming because 4.4% of the heaviest drinkers account for a third of all alcohol drunk. A lot of people are drinking sensibly, within the guidelines. We need a system capable of targeting those who are sensitive to both price and health interventions, among those drinking in a way that is very deleterious to their health. We are doing that for a range of interventions—public health and taxation. As I said, we will look at the progress of minimum unit pricing in Scotland as it takes place.

My Lords, has not the Minister just made the case for minimum unit pricing? Could I remind him to cast his mind back to all the arguments advanced by his side against changes to tobacco and smoking—that everybody was going to be hurt by it if we increased the price? We had to increase the price for the benefit of everyone, and the same now applies to alcohol. All the evidence that he is getting from all his senior medical advisers is that he should introduce a minimum unit price. Why will he not move on this?

I do not recognise the picture of obstruction about tobacco and smoking. This Government have done a huge amount, and smoking levels have never been lower. In terms of increased pricing, history tells us, if you go back hundreds of years—think about “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane”—that taxation has a really important role to play in promoting better drinking habits. That is the approach that we have taken with changes in duty for drinks that are particularly problematic, such as white cider. As I have said, we will look at how minimum unit pricing in Scotland progresses.

Is the Minister aware that Scotland has banned or tried to reduce BOGOF—buy one get one free—at supermarkets? That is the evidence that we heard on the ad hoc committee, which I had the honour to chair, on the scrutiny of the Licensing Act 2003. Changing behaviour is a good way forward, rather than the potentially regressive tax of MUP.

My noble friend speaks with great wisdom about making sure, not just with alcohol but with other health issues around food and drink, that we have a look at making those kinds of promotions not possible.

My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged that the evidence is absolutely there and that he will look at it in the near future, but when might a decision be made? How long does he need the Scotland experiment to last before he actually makes a decision?

The evidence is there, and it is strong—but there is disputed evidence. The coalition Government carried out a consultation in 2013 and found that the evidence was not entirely conclusive. However, we will have a live experiment going on in Scotland, and we expect in two to three years to see evidence of its impact.