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British public is sceptical about minimum price on alcohol

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5871 (Published 13 September 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5871
  1. Mark Hunter
  1. 1Bradford

Plans to introduce minimum pricing on a unit of alcohol in UK countries could be undermined by public mistrust and misunderstanding of the policy, concludes research announced this week.

A survey funded by the newly created charity Alcohol Research UK found that the British public is highly sceptical of minimum pricing. Many people remain to be convinced that small, population level reductions in alcohol consumption could have any significant benefit to public health and would prefer to see anti-alcohol strategies targeted at heavy drinkers.

The research results come just a week after the Scottish parliament announced that it would introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol to improve public health (BMJ 2011;343:d5869, doi:10.1136/bmj.d5869).

The researchers quizzed 217 people in 28 focus groups on their attitudes and beliefs about minimum pricing. They found that the participants saw the policy as unfairly punitive on people who drink in moderation and were concerned that it might create or exacerbate other social problems such as crime and drug abuse.

“There was a concern that people who are highly dependent might turn to crime to fund their addiction,” the study’s leader, Martin Hagger of Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, told the British Science Festival in Bradford.

Professor Hagger said that the study showed that many people did not understand that a minimum price policy was aimed at discounted alcohol sales rather than at alcoholic drinks in general. Minimum pricing was often confused with other pricing strategies such as increases in duty.

“As well as being sceptical about the effectiveness of a minimum pricing policy, many of those who took part in our research simply didn’t fully understand the policy and its implications,” he said.

“VAT increases cause a disparity between the high and low ends of the alcohol market.” In contrast, he said, minimum pricing would tend to affect “buy one, get one free” discounts that were linked with excessive and binge drinking.

Harm caused by excessive drinking has been estimated by the Department of Health for England to cost taxpayers more than £7bn (€8.1bn; $11.1bn) a year. Minimum pricing has been widely suggested as an effective way to reduce this damage.

Earlier this year the government announced its intention to ban selling alcohol in England and Wales at below cost price. In the north west of England some local authorities are currently considering new bylaws to introduce minimum pricing locally.

However, Professor Hagger said that these policy initiatives needed to be supported by the public if they were to succeed.

“If the government chooses to implement a minimum pricing policy, our research suggests that it would be more acceptable to people if it were introduced as part of a wider package of measures to target excessive drinking. If you look at the smoking ban, public opinion was in favour before that policy was introduced. Policy makers must focus on communicating the policy clearly so that people understand its purpose.”

Alcohol Research UK (http://alcoholresearchuk.org), which funded Professor Hagger’s research, has risen from the ashes of the Alcohol Education and Research Council, which was abolished last year as part of the government’s review of “arm’s length bodies” (BMJ 2010;341:c5819, doi:10.1136/bmj.c5819). Its chairman, Robin Davidson, said that the charity would focus on funding research that “actually makes a difference both to policy and to practice.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5871

Footnotes

  • bmj.com Editorial: Preventing alcohol related harm to health (BMJ 2010;340:c372, doi:10.1136/bmj.c372)