Feature Alcohol and Public Health

Under the influence: 1. False dawn for minimum unit pricing

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7435 (Published 08 January 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7435
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

In the first of a series of articles investigating the practices of the alcohol industry, Jonathan Gornall reveals its longstanding influence on government policy

When the British government published its alcohol strategy in March 2012, its pledge to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol seemed to be an unequivocal commitment, underwritten by the word of the prime minister, David Cameron.

The strategy suggested that the only issue still up for debate was the level at which the minimum price would be set. If it were 40 pence (€0.48; $0.66) a unit, wrote Cameron, “that could mean 50 000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol related deaths a year by the end of the decade.”1

In the foreword to the strategy Cameron conceded that the proposals, which included action on “irresponsible promotions” in supermarkets, wouldn’t be universally popular. But, he added, “the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”

To the health lobby, long frustrated by the inaction of a government apparently determined to allow alcohol producers to regulate themselves in exchange for a series of “half-hearted pledges ... with no teeth,”2 it finally seemed that Cameron had found the courage to defy the industry and take action that would actually reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

A little over a year later, however, the government revealed that it had decided instead to do the wrong thing. In an extraordinary U turn, flagged for months but finally announced in the House of Commons on 17 July, the last day before summer recess, the commitment to a minimum price was withdrawn.

Just how that U turn was achieved is not only a story of the power of lobbying, dubious connections, and the expert dissemination of misinformation. …

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