Learning from devolution: looking across the border on alcohol policy

There has been a recent flurry of papers on the new public health system in England from the Department of Health and the Future Forum, but perhaps more important in practical terms will be the alcohol strategy, expected sometime in February. The big debate on alcohol is what to do, if anything, on pricing. On alcohol, as with much public policy of late, English eyes will be trained across the border.

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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Comments

#688 DJP

Price fixing is illegal, witness the fines imposed on British Airways and other companies, so there is a suggestion that there should be an exception for alcohol why not for a whole range of other products - where do you stop or do you allow price fixing apply for all products?

#689 Liz Robinson
Alcohol Coordinator
Newcastle City Council

Concerns have been raised that minimum unit price would be unlawful under EU free trade law. (The European Court of Justice has ruled in several cases that minimum unit prices for tobacco are unlawful and that excise duty is the better way of raising price). Also that minimum unit price could be regarded as constituting a trade barrier contrary to EU free movement of goods. Despite this, both the European Court of Justice and the European Free Trade Association have been prepared to prioritise health over trade concerns when considering alcohol policies, providing certain conditions have been met. If a national minimum unit price was challenged the government could invoke such a public health defence, a principle established in European law. A number of countries across Europe including Belgium, France and Portugal and Spain have legislation banning low cost selling.

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