Is minimum pricing dead in the water?

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The ‘will they, won’t they?’ saga of minimum unit pricing for alcohol continues after the government announced it was shelving plans for its introduction. What might happen next?Picture 2

When the government published its alcohol strategy last year, many people were surprised to find that it contained a commitment to introducing minimum unit pricing (MUP) now, almost 18 months later, MUP is once again seemingly off the agenda.

Although it remains ‘a policy under consideration,’ according to crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne’s carefully worded statement to the House of Commons, it will ‘not be taken forward at this time’. While lack of evidence has been cited as the reason, even the government’s own Public Health England body has expressed disappointment and pledged to ‘take forward a comprehensive and scientific review of all the available evidence’ to inform any final decision.

The University of Sheffield has also published research claiming that the government’s alternative measure – a ban on selling alcohol below the level of the tax payable on it – would have a ‘small impact’, as just 1.3 per cent of units sold would fall below the threshold.

Lobbying campaign

When the rumours started earlier this year that the government was planning to abandon MUP, much of the talk was about the rise of Nigel Farage – often photographed with a pint in his hand – and UKIP, and the desire to not be seen as ‘anti-booze’ or out of touch with ordinary people. But now the discussion has turned back to a far more long-standing and intractable obstacle – the sheer might of the drinks industry – with a joint statement from Cancer Research UK, the Faculty of Public Health and others saying that it was ‘perfectly clear that MUP has fallen victim to a concerted and shameful campaign of lobbying’ by sections of the industry happy to put profits ‘before health and public safety’. 

‘One thing is undoubtedly the power and influence of the industry,’ Alcohol Concern chief executive Eric Appleby tells DDN. ‘We know they’ve put massive resources into lobbying. But it also appears that MUP is a bit of a victim of internal divisions in the Conservative party, with certain ministers in favour and then against. When the news first came out that they were thinking of dropping it, it coincided with a bit of caballing between various people like Theresa May, Andrew Lansley and Micheal Gove, so there’s internal politics in this as well. But what it all boils down to, again, is that public health is way down at the bottom of the agenda when it comes to what’s important to them.’

What does his organisation make of the commitments the government has made, such as banning the sale of alcohol below the level of duty plus VAT, or ‘facilitating local action’? ‘Banning sales below duty has absolutely no impact whatsoever,’ he states. ‘It will just do nothing. I think the reckoning [from researchers at the University of Sheffield] was that it would save 15 lives a year, instead of the 3,000 you’d get with MUP. It’s just a very flimsy fig leaf.’

‘Good local people’

Local action, meanwhile, relies on ‘good local people’, he points out. ‘There are some good examples around, obviously, but not everywhere are there people with the understanding and resources. We know that the whole thing with alcohol – and why it’s different to drugs – is that it’s about whole- population approaches, and you don’t get that just from local action. You can’t knock it, but on its own it’s not the answer.’

A vital function of minimum pricing has been to provide a focal point for campaigners and a means of unifying the message. Can it still do that now? ‘I think it can – almost even more so,’ he says. ‘The dropping of it has been done in such a way that it’s almost become a cause célèbre. The government’s arguments that there’s not enough evidence are plainly just wrong. The fact that the government have said they’re not doing it doesn’t lessen the arguments for it in any way, and the very obvious sense that they’ve just bowed down to the alcohol industry is only going to fire people up more.’

He told DDN in June that minimum pricing was ‘not going to go away’. Is that something he still believes? ‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘And I can tell you that we’re not going to go away either, and other members of the Alcohol Health Alliance are not going to go away. We’re gearing up to take it on even more strongly.’

So what happens now? ‘Obviously we’re going to do some planning over the next few weeks about what we do next, but at the moment we’re looking at things like party manifestos for the next election,’ he says. ‘The Coalition haven’t actually ditched it – they’ve backed off a bit and said that they’re just not doing it right now – so if that’s the case they can at least put it back in their manifestos for the next election.

‘We know those aren’t necessarily worth that much, but nonetheless it’s one way of keeping the discussion going, keeping it in the forefront of debate. And just making sure that – every step of the way – they’re confronted by the fact that there’s evidence that it works, and that none of the alternatives can do the same job.’ 

Modelled income group-specific impacts of alcohol minimum unit pricing in England 2014/15 at www.shef.ac.uk/news/nr/below-cost-selling-ban-1.294086