Belfast Telegraph

Minimum pricing for alcohol 'won't work'

By Michael McHugh

Introducing minimum pricing for alcohol would not target problem drinkers and would hit jobs and trade, a pro-business economics consultancy said.

It would cost consumers £121 million a year but harmful drinkers would only reduce their habit by around two pints a week, a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) said.

The Executive is pressing ahead with plans which could see a minimum price of 40p-50p per unit of alcohol introduced in Northern Ireland in a bid to tackle binge drinking.

Senior economist at the CEBR Benjamin Williamson said: "This report shows that the case for minimum pricing is extremely weak, it would not target problem drinkers and would have a genuine negative economic impact in terms of jobs, trade and costs to the consumer.

"There is no credible evidence demonstrating potential benefits from the introduction of minimum pricing."

The CEBR was founded by a former chief economist for the CBI and IBM UK and has pledged to bridge the gap between economics and business.

Efforts to introduce minimum pricing are facing opposition from those running cheap alcohol promotions, from supermarkets and from those who only drink in moderation.

The CEBR said harmful drinkers would only reduce their consumption by less than two pints of weak beer per week if a minimum price of 50p per unit was introduced in Northern Ireland.

It said as a result, the purported benefits of increased alcohol prices like reductions in crime or improved health were also overestimated.

It claimed the negative impact of minimum pricing like penalising moderate consumers, increased expenditure and the economic impact of cross-border trade in terms of job losses were ignored, adding the case for minimum pricing remained unproven.

The report said if a 50p per unit price was introduced:

  • Harmful drinkers' consumption would be reduced by only four units per week;
  • Moderate drinkers would reduce consumption by 3.9% due to their greater sensitivity to price;
  • Moderate drinkers would spend over £27 million more on alcohol;
  • For the tenth of the population on the lowest income, the average price paid per unit would more than double;
  • The impact of minimum pricing adds up to £121 million per year.

The Department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety, and the Department for Social Development are concerned about how alcohol is priced, promoted and marketed. Research has shown that in real terms alcohol is 62% more affordable today than it was almost 30 years ago in 1980.

A minimum price per unit of alcohol has the largest effect on the cheapest and strongest drinks, which is why it has attracted wide support from health campaigners. The impact would be highly visible in supermarkets where discount selling is most widespread.

Those who support a minimum price say there is strong international evidence that price is linked to consumption and higher consumption leads to higher harm. Health organisations say alcohol sold in shops has become steadily cheaper compared to incomes.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The two departments continue working together on this issue and we are keen to assess in detail the potential impact of minimum unit pricing.

"We are therefore going to commission research to model the likely impact of minimum unit pricing in Northern Ireland, and this will help inform our future decisions in this area."

A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association of doctors said the cost to society of alcohol misuse in Northern Ireland is estimated to be £679.8 million.

"Excessive alcohol consumption costs to the health service in Northern Ireland may be as high as around £160 million each year with a further cost of £82 million to social services," she added.

"In human terms, excessive alcohol consumption costs 266 lives and 140,000 sick days."

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