Feature Alcohol and Public Health

Under the influence

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7646 (Published 08 January 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7646
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

In a BMJ investigation, Jonathan Gornall discovers that the government consultation into introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales was a sham and that politicians ignored the strong health evidence in favour of protecting the interests of industry

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

Minimum price would “target the cheapest products and help reduce drinking in those who drink the most,” wrote David Cameron. The only issue still up for debate was the level at which the price would be set, but if it were 40 pence (€0.48; $0.65) that could mean “50 000 fewer crimes . . . and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade.”1

The proposal wouldn’t be universally popular, Cameron acknowledged. But “the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”

PETER MACDIARMID/ GETTY

A year later, however, the government revealed 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months but finally announced in the House of Commons on 17 July, the last day before summer recess, the commitment was withdrawn. Even though Scotland had already passed a bill to introduce a minimum price of 50 pence per unit, England and Wales would not be following suit.

Just how that U turn was achieved is a cautionary tale about the ability of the alcohol industry to influence public health policy. That it can is thanks in part to a fundamental reluctance in government to hamper an industry that claims credit for millions of jobs and billions of pounds of income …

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