AHA Reception

MUP where we belong: MPs discuss minimum unit pricing

On Tuesday 14 May I attended the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) reception in Westminster. It was a highly successful evening with a room packed with MPs, Peers, members of the AHA and other stakeholders. We all heard from a great range of speakers about alcohol harm, what we can do about it, and how we can approach the necessary legislative changes. The evening was of particular note for me as it happened in my first week of work. 

Introductions

The sun shone on Parliament Square as I walked along chatting excitedly to my colleague who had poured months of work into this event. As we approached the imposing soaring building I reflected that this wasn’t a bad way to start a new job. We passed through the security checkpoint, buried at the foot of the imposing architecture. Despite the gravitas of the building there is still something inherently undignified about taking off your belt and emptying your pockets before moments later frantically gathering up the uncountable number of coins you have accumulated. Following a flurry of furniture manoeuvring, the rest of the team from our office arrived. A brief lull fed into the universal anxiety of event hosting: would anyone come? Moments later this was banished as I, standing at the door, was engulfed in a small and very civil whirlwind of arrivals. Circles of conversations blossomed and propagated; politicians from across the political spectrum networked with figures of national importance and those local to their electorate.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore

The chair of the AHA opened the event. His message was simple and direct. Alcohol is a leading cause of working life years lost and we know what works to fix it: minimum unit pricing. We are one year on from its introduction in Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland have both passed minimum unit pricing, and yet England lags behind. Sir Ian drew a compelling parallel to cigarette taxation, an area where the UK is one the leaders in European, yet on alcohol England is lagging behind the rest of the UK.

Derek Thomas MP

Derek Thomas MP

Sir Ian was followed by our host, Derek Thomas MP. Derek has been a proponent of minimum unit pricing since joining Parliament: he’s seen the damage the lack of alcohol regulation has wrought in his community, particularly amongst young people. He rebuffed one of the oft-cited arguments that this policy would be bad for pubs, saying that that simply wasn’t true, and we that we need to dispel this myth.

Adrian Chiles

Stepping forward, Adrian Chiles explained how he had been catapulted into this field by his documentary ‘Drinkers Like Me’, in which he examined his own drinking and found that he did not like what he saw. He argues that many drinkers who consume to excess enjoy only a fraction of the drinks they have, and that it’s absurd to claim that drinking less than 14 units a week (the CMOs recommended low risk level) is impossibly difficult: most people’s drinking easily falls below this threshold. He said it was the work of alcohol marketing and the industry to make people think 14 units is too low – in a cynical attempt to shift social norms to promote the sales of their product. Striking again at the status quo, he turned to labelling: why on earth does alcohol have no nutritional information on it? Why do the recommendations of what’s safe not feature? Adrian’s speech was crowned by a forthright statement: the self-regulation of the alcohol industry needs to change: it’s not working.

From right: Professor Sir Ian Gilmore (AHA Chair), Fiona Bruce MP, Adrian Chiles

Jon Ashworth MP

Jon Ashworth MP, Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary

The final address of the evening was from Jon Ashworth MP who spoke articulately and movingly of his own experience of his father’s drinking. When he was a child, he heard his dad’s football teammates joke that the best trick to beat Ashworth in goal would be to throw a six pack in the other direction and then score into the open net. But the drinking was far from funny. He missed Jon’s, his own son’s, wedding as he feared he would embarrass him. Three months later he was dead. Jon Ashworth assured the room that in Government he would ‘get serious about this very serious problem’. It was a sombre and appropriate way to close the evening. These common tragedies are not inevitable. Every moment we fail to act takes a frighteningly real toll.

Final thoughts

The evening was an unmitigated success; an excellent occasion to mark one year since Scottish minimum unit pricing, and for me a memorable way to have first set foot in Parliament. I’ll leave you with just a few numbers. Every day in England, alcohol contributes to the death of 65 people; this means five families lost someone dear to them during this reception. Minimum unit pricing is far from a panacea, but its introduction in England is predicted to save 525 lives every year, while costing the government nothing and moderate drinkers just £2.25 – 4p more on the weekly budget is an absurdly cheap price to save 10 lives and protect many more from bleak emptiness of losing someone they love.

Photos of some of the attending MPs

Written by Kieran Bunn, Policy and Advocacy Assistant at IAS