Chancellor urged to tackle the scourge of cheap alcohol

2 December 2016: Leading representatives from the alcohol harm reduction, children’s, homelessness and religious sectors have today called for action on the harm done by cheap alcohol.

43 organisations and experts have written to the Chancellor calling on him to implement targeted measures such as a minimum unit price for alcohol and increased taxes on high strength white cider, to lower the burden of cheap alcohol on our most vulnerable groups, our NHS and public services, and the economy.

Their call comes in response to a report released today by Public Health England, which finds that raising the price of the cheapest alcohol products is the most powerful tool at the Government’s disposal to tackle the harm done by the cheapest alcohol.

The report, published in the Lancet, explains that alcohol is the leading cause of ill health, early death and disability amongst 15-49 year olds in England, and results in 167,000 years of working life lost. The report estimates the annual cost of alcohol harm to the UK in 2016 to be between 1.3% and 2.7% of GDP, which equates to £27billion and £52billion.

In October 2016, a review of alcohol prices by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK found an abundance of cheap, high strength drinks across the UK. Researchers were able to find products like high strength white ciders, which are predominantly drunk by dependent and underage drinkers, available for as little as 16p per unit.

This means that for the cost of a standard off-peak cinema ticket it is possible to buy almost seven and a half litres of high strength white cider, containing as much alcohol as 53 shots of vodka.

Last month, a study found that, in England alone, the introduction of a 50p minimum unit price could reduce alcohol deaths by around 7,200, and reduce healthcare costs by £1.2 billion over 20 years.

Responding to the Public Health England report, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said:

This report provides yet more evidence of the effectiveness of raising the price of the cheapest alcohol to tackle alcohol-related harm.

 Increased duty on the cheapest drinks, alongside minimum unit pricing, would make a real difference to the lives of some of our most vulnerable groups and ease the burden on our health service. These measures would also lower the burden of premature mortality due to alcohol, thereby increasing economic output.

At the same time, ordinary drinkers will not be penalised. Minimum unit pricing will leave pub prices untouched, and tax on the cheapest, strongest drinks will be targeted at those drinks which are preferentially consumed by harmful and dependent drinkers.

 Jeremy Swain, Chief Executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach, said:

Among the homeless people we work with, our figures indicate that super-strength beers and ciders, at 7.5-9% ABV, are doing more damage than both heroin and crack cocaine.

98% of the homeless people we work with who have alcohol problems primarily drink bottles and cans of these super-strength ciders and beers, which are far stronger than regular and premium ciders and beers, and a survey of deaths in Thames Reach hostels showed 11 of 14 deaths over a year (78%) were directly attributed to high-strength drinks.

By introducing minimum unit pricing and increasing the tax on these damaging products, the harm done to the vulnerable people we work with will go down and the opportunity to reduce, and ultimately end dependence on alcohol, increase.

Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, Matthew Reed, said:

“Millions of children in the UK are living in families where adults drink hazardous levels of alcohol. This is placing children at greater risk of abuse and neglect, conflict and domestic violence at home.

“We know children as young as five are calling helplines because they are worried about their parents’ drinking. The availability of cheap alcohol also makes it easier for teenagers to get hold of strong drinks at pocket money prices.

 “We need the government to act now and protect children from alcohol misuse by increasing prices, as suggested by Public Health England. Families and children should also be provided with adequate support such as counselling and family mediation to address the issue of alcohol misuse as early as possible and to alleviate the impact it has had on children. This will be a step forward in putting the needs to vulnerable children first.”