7 Feb 2013

Boost alcohol prices and cut drink deaths, says report

Increasing the price of alcohol by 10 per cent can cut drink-related deaths by a third and reduce the consumption of even heavy drinkers, a new study has found.

Increasing the price of alcohol by 10 per cent can cut drink-related deaths by a third and reduce the consumption of even heavy drinkers, a new study has found.

The claims by a study published in the journal Addiction found raising the price of cheaper drinks reduced the consumption of heavier drinkers. Research was carried out between 2002 and 2009 after the minimum pricing limits for alcohol drinks were set in Canada. The 32 per cent impact was bigger than had been expected, said the scientists.

Lead author Dr Tim Stockwell, from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said: “Despite popular opinion to the contrary, even the heaviest drinkers reduce their consumption when minimum alcohol prices increase. It is hard otherwise to explain the significant changes in alcohol-related deaths observed in British Columbia.”

The researchers focused on “wholly alcohol-attributable deaths” which included causes such as poisoning, psychosis, heart problems, pancreatitis and gastritis. The study however was also complicated by another policy in British Columbia under which alcohol sales were partially privatised after having previous been controlled through government-owned stores. A 10 per cent increase in numbers of the stores was associated with a 2 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths.

These findings will be keenly scrutinised by alcohol policy makers, particularly in the UK where the government plans to introduce a minimum price on alcohol to try to clamp down on binge drinking and anti-social behaviour.

The government is keen to introduce a minimum price of 45p for a unit of alcohol sold in England and Wales. consultation on this ended this week. Scotland has already proposed a price of 50p per unit. The drinks industry says the price of a bottle of gin could rise by a fifth under David Cameron’s proposed scheme, and whisky could cost 10 per cent more.

Surrounded by alcohol

One alcoholic, Sarah (name changed to protect her anonymity), told Channel 4 News: “I was 13 years old when I started drinking. My Mum was an alcoholic so I grew up surrounded by it. But it wasn’t until her death that I started drinking heavily four years ago – I was 20 years old. Bad memories and things happening drove me to drink more. I would drink mainly whisky and vodka, and I could finish two large bottles (70cl) of vodka a day, spending about £20 a day.”

Sarah is now receiving treatment for both drink and drugs. She said at the height of her addiction she held down a steady job working in a school kitchen earning around £240 a week. “I would spend £200 a week on drugs and alcohol. But the drugs didn’t do as much for me so I drank more because I could get hold of it more easily.

“I racked up so much debt because I stopped paying my bills. I think the argument that an addict will always keep drinking no matter what the price is, is true but I probably wouldn’t have been able to get hold of as much if it was more expensive. Alcoholism is a progressive illness and I was way too young to have been drinking that heavily. Personally I think that the price up should be put up and they should limit the amount of alcohol that can be sold too.”

‘Substantial impacts’

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on alcohol for England 2012 found:

  • In 2010, 68 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women (aged 16 and over) reported drinking an alcoholic drink on at least one day in the week prior to being interviewed
  • There was an 11 per cent increase on alcohol-related admissions (based on attributable fractions) totalling 1,168,300 for 2010/11 – more than twice as many as in 2002/03 (510,700).
  • The cost of prescription items to treatment alcohol dependency was £2.49m in 2011 – an increase of 45 per cent on the 2003 figure (£1.72m).

The Canadian study is the first to highlight the effects on mortality of alcohol minimum pricing, although previous research from the University of Sheffield claims consumption of alcohol would be reduced if prices rose.

Public health expert Dr John Holmes from Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at University of Sheffield said: “This new research by Tim Stockwell and his team is a major contribution to the evidence on the impact of minimum pricing, and suggests that this type of policy can have substantial impacts in reducing the number of premature deaths associated with alcohol.

“Our also suggests that the biggest impact of minimum unit pricing in England would be for hazardous and harmful drinkers. A 40p minimum price (approximately equivalent to the government’s proposed 45p in 2014) is estimated to lead to 1,190 fewer alcohol-related deaths in the tenth year after the policy is implemented and save £600m in direct costs to the health service over the first ten years of the policy.”

Age shift

At the Ravenscourt Centre in Bognor Regis, alcoholics and drug addicts receive rehabilitation treatment. The clinic has been treating sufferers for 25 years. Its director Jon Harman says there has definitely been a shift in the age of people coming to the clinic. He told Channel 4 News he believes this is partly due to the price of alcohol and how easy it is to get hold of.

“The relaxation of licensing laws and the extended opening hours of pubs and shops males alcohol more available and these days it is certainly more affordable. We used to treat alcoholics aged in their 40s and 50s but during the last five to ten years there has been a shift in the trend and we are seeing younger people, they are usually in their 20s and 30s. The nature of alcohol has also changed. It used to be an organic product but it is more chemical based and it can certainly do more damage as we have been seeing.”

The clinic is in favour of raising the price of alcohol, Mr Harman added: “The evidence is there, it worked in Scotland. Raising the price has to make a small difference and if it can make a small difference that’s a good thing. It could also help people to pause, you know those people on the cusp of alcoholism.”