Up until now, the government's alcohol policy has been pursued via the Responsibility Deal, urging the industry to improve through self-regulation and voluntary actions. The alcohol pledges revolve around promoting existing information and guidelines in premises where alcohol is sold. This is perfectly in tune with the view that excessive alcohol use is essentially an individual's problem, solved through self-control and responsible consumption. As such, providing more education and promoting information are the obvious solutions. In contrast, the public health profession broadly sees the misuse of alcohol as a population-wide problem: we drink to excess if people around us do; we are highly sensitive to access, advertising and social norms; and harm radiates well beyond the individual drinker. Tighter regulation, such as price control, is therefore a legitimate policy response.
This government's policies on tobacco and obesity have made little impact. Why might alcohol be different? For one thing, although overall alcohol consumption has stabilised, social costs are high and health harms have been rising steeply, and there is clear concern that voluntary regulation alone is not a sufficient response. Meanwhile, the Scottish government's intentions to test the validity of EU legislation on minimum pricing has been heard loud and clear in London, including on the government's back benches. Convincing analysis for NICE and the Scottish government has shown that a minimum per unit alcohol price is likely to be a very targeted and effective option to reduce harmful levels of consumption. It is therefore a much harder case to shoot down than other pricing options such as a blanket-wide increase in tax. Moreover, and critically, a move to minimum pricing would also split alcohol producer and retailer interests. Tesco has already said it supports a move to minimum pricing as it is unlikely to harm its overall income from alcohol, and the on-trade is also likely to see little harm. Indeed they and producers of high-end alcohol retail products may in fact benefit – as the price-gap with cheaper products narrows there is more incentive for consumers to shift to higher 'value' brands, and to drink in pubs rather than at home. The big loser on the industry side will be low-end products.
The winds may therefore be set fair for a significant shift in alcohol policy in England. Much will depend on whether the government as a whole is as convinced that sticking to the Responsibility Deal is a sufficient response to the problems of excessive alcohol consumption. In practice, England may wish to hold back a little to see how successful Scotland is on testing EU legislation.
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