Protect our children by ending tax breaks on cheap super-strength cider, say health campaigners

4 March 2016: Health bodies are calling for an end to tax breaks for a product that is a favourite for homeless people and children who end up in specialist alcohol treatment services.

A new analysis of sales figures show that cider sales in England and Wales have increased by 50 per cent per head of population in the last 10 years, fuelled by low rates of alcohol duty. The respected Institute of Fiscal Studies recently called on George Osborne to address the issue by increasing duty on both cider and spirits.

Now the Alcohol Health Alliance is calling for duty increases on the cheapest, strongest cider which is sold for as little as £3 for a two litre bottle and which surveys have shown is commonly consumed by children who require help for their drinking.

“Alcohol sales have been falling over the last few years thanks to duty increases,” said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the AHA. “Unfortunately that policy has been reversed after extensive lobbying by the alcohol industry, with the result that those falls have stopped and alcohol sales may well be starting to increase.

“Increased sales mean more alcohol related deaths, more alcohol related hospital admissions and more pressure on our emergency services. The only winners are the big alcohol companies. Duty cuts don’t even help our hard-pressed pubs who don’t see any of the benefits. Since the cuts started in 2013 we are seeing a greater proportion of alcohol sold in supermarkets while pubs continue to close.”

The sales figures, released this week in a report evaluating the effectiveness of Scotland’s alcohol strategy, indicate that enough alcohol is sold in England and Wales for every drinker to be consuming an average of 22 units per week, well above the Chief Medical Officers’ new weekly guidelines of 14 units. The figure for Scotland is even higher at over 24 units.

Alcohol sales per head peaked in 2005 before falling by 14% to 2013, a trend driven by duty increases. The AHA is now calling for a return to targeted duty increases in order to protect our children, a change supported by Nerys Anthony, Director of Young People, Health & Wellbeing at social business Catch22.

“Policy must reflect the impact of low priced alcohol on children and young people.  Drinking at this age can have serious and long term negative consequences, affecting not just health but every area of a young person’s life. This kind of risky behaviour impacts on emotional wellbeing, educational attainment, and puts young people at risk of the most serious forms of exploitation. “Restricting access to cheap alcohol would not just protect the health of vulnerable young people, but could have a positive and far reaching impact across their entire lives.”

It’s not just children who are suffering at the hands of cheap cider and vodka. Cheap cider is the drink of choice for homeless people too.

Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach Chief Executive, said: “The price and easy availability of these problem drinks mean that they are effectively marketed at vulnerable people. On the streets we see the damage that they cause to people’s lives, how they ruin health and contribute to premature death.  We support the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) call for an increase in tax.”

The AHA’s key recommendations in this years’ Budget are as follows:

  • Reinstate the alcohol duty escalator – to counter the trend of increased affordability that is associated with rising consumption and harm.
  • Increase duty on high strength cider – targeting with higher tax rates which would substantially reduce the associated harms.
  • Ensure spirits are taxed at a higher rate than wine and beer – the same rate of duty for all beverage types would mean that distilled spirits could be sold much more cheaply than wine or beer – a public health concern as they are much stronger and carry a greater risk of health and social harm. ‘White’ spirits as they are often known (such as vodka), tend to be consumed more by girls and young women, while two out of the top five drinks most consumed by young people are vodka brands.
  • Lobby for change at EU level so that drinks in all categories can be taxed according to their strength.
  • Implement a minimum unit price for all alcoholic products. MUP is needed to deal with the particular problem of the cheapest strongest drinks favoured by the heaviest drinkers and is compatible promoting alcohol duty structure for other products.