The cheaper alcohol is, the more people die and what we can do about it

The cheaper alcohol is, the more people die and what we can do about it

When it comes to alcohol, drinkers span across a spectrum. There are some who buy a bottle of wine, only looking to the price as their way of judging how good a vintage they’ve gone for (honestly we don’t have a clue – you could run Blue Nun through the Sodastream and we’d believe you that it was pricey Champagne). But, on the other side of that spectrum, there are those who want to maximise their alcohol intake to spend ratio, and so are far more calculated about how they buy their booze. Let’s be honest – it’s the only reason people drink Long Islands. Super strength, same price.

On an individual level, this usually translates to people heading to happy hours, taking advantage of multibuy offers and drinking 50p shots all in aid of getting leathered more quickly. On a population level, the cheaper the booze is, the more people die.

This is more important now than ever. Alcohol-related deaths have hit a new record high in England and Wales in the first nine months of 2020 with 80 people dying per day across the UK.

There are two key contributors to the final cost of the alcohol we buy, here’s a whistle stop tour of each and why they’re so important.

Alcohol tax

One of the major factors that influence the cost of booze is the amount it is taxed. The Treasury estimates that recent cuts and freezes to alcohol duty cost the government more than £1.3 billion every year in lost revenue. There’s one obvious benefit to recuperating this money – it can be used by the (already stretched) NHS or Drug and Alcohol services or even social services as they incur costs of £2.8bn a year due to alcohol.

The second benefit of increasing the tax, is that history has taught us that when the tax on alcohol goes up, less people die. Let me talk you through the graph below (Fig 1). The green and orange lines are the alcohol-related death rates in Scotland, and England and Wales. The dark blue, light blue and purple lines are the affordability of spirits, beer and wine over the same period. You will see that as the alcohol becomes increasingly affordable (and the lines go up), more people die (those lines go up too). However, from 2007 to 2013 the government introduced a 2% duty escalator, so there was a higher tax on alcohol, it became less affordable and, low and behold, the number of deaths decreased. You can see this in the portion of the graph shaded grey.

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Fig 1. Alcohol affordability and mortality in UK from 1980 onwards

The cost of alcohol per unit

The vigilant among you will have seen various debates and discussions about minimum unit pricing in the news. 

You won’t be judged if it passed you by, it’s never very clear, understandable or particularly entertaining chat. 

It also doesn’t help that no one really knows what a “unit” is anyway.

The breakdown is, some people (myself included) want the government to introduce a minimum charge for alcoholic drinks of 50-60p per unit. 

So, the more alcohol, the stronger the drink and therefore the higher the price. That means that it wouldn’t be possible to charge crazy low prices for crazy strong alcohol because it would be capped and regulated.

This isn’t a tax, it just means people selling booze can’t play silly with the price.

This was unexpectedly introduced in the UK back in 2012 but the initiative was unceremoniously dumped in 2013 after a cabinet revolt. 

It’s already in place in Scotland and in the first year, resulted in a drop in the amount of alcohol bought and a notable fall in Scotland’s alcohol-related death rate.

If the same minimum unit price (50p per unit) was rolled out in England it would save an estimated 525 lives and cut healthcare costs by £326 million every year.

What can we do to tackle the problem of cheap alcohol?

Take a look at the chart below (Fig 2). With each cost-related action, you can see the effect on the population’s alcohol consumption. 

Any strategy that increases the price has the greatest effect on the high-risk drinkers – the people who need it the most. 

This is the most pronounced when duty increases are combined with minimum unit pricing. 

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Fig 2. Change in consumption (units per year) at full effect by policy and drinker group

So, when something so directly affects preventable death-rates, it’s a no brainer that the government should intervene and increase prices and/or duty right?

Unfortunately not.

The alcohol industry push back heavily on any suggestions that the price of alcohol could be regulated or that tax increases could be introduced. 

Arguments usually include: “It’ll kill pub trade”, “There’s no evidence it will work” or “our consumption is going down anyway.”

The fact is that the moderate drinkers, who the alcohol industry claim they want to safely appeal to, will not be put off drinking by the increase in price. It’s the people drinking to dangerous levels who will be most greatly affected and that, in health terms, is good news. 

Our consumption is not going down, particularly not after this pandemic and with the example of Scotland’s recent reduced death rates, we can say that these strategies work.

If you want to put the pressure on to get the government to take these initiatives more seriously, and acknowledge the problem of cheap alcohol, write to your MP. If you don’t know where to start check out the Alcohol Health Alliance’s website. They’ll help you work out who your MP is, where you can contact them and they will even give you a template letter to send. You really can’t say fairer than that.  

Written by Lauren Windle

Lauren Windle is a journalist, presenter, and author. She’s been sober since April 2014, has a Masters in Addiction Studies from King’s College London and runs a support programme for anyone seeking recovery from addiction in West London. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @_Lauren_Celeste.

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