A new Welsh Government bill aims to establish a minimum unit price for alcohol, and make it an offence for alcohol to be supplied below that price. The Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill, which has been introduced before the National Assembly for Wales by public health minister Rebecca Evans, will address ‘longstanding and specific concerns’ around excess drinking, the government says.
The annual number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in Wales is estimated at 50,000, at a cost to the NHS of £120m. If a 50p minimum price were to be introduced, reductions in alcohol-related ill health, crime and lost productivity would be worth £882m to the Welsh economy over the next 20 years, the government claims, and there would be 1,400 fewer annual hospital admissions.
The bill proposes a formula for calculating a minimum price based on percentage strength and volume, as well as powers for ministers to create ‘subordinate legislation’ to specify the minimum unit cost. It would also set up a local authority-led enforcement regime with powers of entry and prosecution, and the ability to issue fixed penalty notices.
Plans by the Scottish Government to introduce minimum pricing have been mired in legal difficulties since the start of the decade, however. Although the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill was passed 18 months after a previous alcohol bill had its provisions for minimum pricing removed (DDN, June 2012, page 4), still-unresolved legal challenges from drinks industry bodies mean the legislation is yet to be implemented (DDN, December 2016, page 4). David Cameron’s coalition government, meanwhile, shelved its plans to introduce minimum pricing on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that it would reduce harm without penalising moderate drinkers (DDN, August 2013, page 4).
The impact on moderate drinkers in Wales would be small, the country’s chief medical officer, Dr Frank Atherton, has stated, with the most impact falling on ‘harmful and hazardous’ drinkers.
‘Alcohol-related harm is a significant public health problem in Wales,’ said Rebecca Evans. ‘The 463 alcohol-attributable deaths in 2015 were all avoidable, and each of these deaths would have had a devastating effect on the person’s family and friends. Alcohol-related harm also has a big impact on public services such as the NHS. There is a very clear and direct link between levels of excessive drinking and the availability of cheap alcohol. So we need to take decisive action now to address the affordability of alcohol, as part of wider efforts to tackle alcohol-related harm.’
The bill would address excessive drinking by making it an offence for retailers to sell strong alcohol at low prices, she stated. ‘It will make an important contribution to improving health outcomes, by putting prevention and early intervention at the heart of our efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm. This will undoubtedly help save lives.’