Banning “below cost” alcohol will have little effect on consumption, say researchers

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 24 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1413
  1. Bryan Christie
  1. 1Edinburgh

Attempts to reduce alcohol misuse in England and Wales by banning sales of “below cost” drinks will have limited effect, concludes research carried out at the University of Newcastle.

The study, believed to be the first in the United Kingdom to examine the effect of discounts on alcohol prices, found that only 2% of drinks in price promotions sold for less than the tax paid on them, estimated at around 21p (€0.25; $0.33) to 28p per unit, and would therefore be banned. However, if instead a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol was set, more than a quarter of promotions (26.2%) would be affected. The 50p rate was recommended in 2009 by the then chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson.

A ban on selling drinks at below cost price is due to be introduced in April in England and Wales, but the researchers behind the study say that their results clearly show that a minimum price strategy would be more effective in reducing the harm from low cost alcohol.

Scotland is introducing legislation to set a minimum price for alcohol, and several organisations, including the BMA, have called on the Westminster government to follow suit.

The Newcastle research, published in Alcohol and Alcoholism (doi:10.1093/alcalc/agr159), is based on a survey of prices in 29 off licences in Newcastle city centre. It found more than 2000 special drink promotions on offer, which resulted in median saving of 25% but required a purchase of more than 20 units. The study says that there is evidence to show that the availability of low cost alcohol encourages people to buy more, and it has been calculated that a 25% saving may lead to a 12.5% increase in purchases.

“Our results indicate that the current government proposal to ban sales of alcohol at below ‘cost’ price is likely to affect very few products and so would be unlikely to have a substantial effect on purchasing and consumption. In contrast, a minimum price of 50p per unit would impact on more than one quarter of the price discounts we identified,” says the study.

The study’s lead author, Jean Adams, of the university’s Centre for Transitional Research in Public Health, said, “The effect of price on alcohol consumption has been documented clearly: when the price of alcohol increases, consumption decreases; whereas when price decreases, consumption increases. Setting the minimum alcohol price at below cost price will not deter binge drinkers, as very little alcohol on sale will actually have to increase in price.”

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East alcohol campaign funded by health trusts, said, “We welcome this research, which further demonstrates the real need for a minimum price per unit of alcohol if we are serious about tackling the problems caused by its misuse. Alcohol continues to be sold for pocket money prices across the north east, where we have the highest rate of alcohol related hospital admission and male deaths in England.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1413