Views from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Divisions and power: what we should know about the debate over minimum pricing for alcohol

Post submitted by Dr Ben Hawkins, Research Fellow

The UK Government today launched a consultation on its plans to introduce a 45p minimum price per unit of alcohol sold in England and Wales. This follows legislation passed in Scotland to introduce minimum pricing, where the proposed price per unit is 50p.

It is designed to tackle the high rates of alcohol related harm in the UK, not just as a result of binge drinking, but the long term effects of drinking above the government’s recommended daily limits. Many people exceed these and are unaware of the harms associated with their level of consumption.

Price interventions have been identified as among the most effective and cost effective measures to reduce consumption and harm. Minimum pricing has significant support among doctors and public health campaigners including the Royal College of Physicians.

They cite research conducted at the University of Sheffield, demonstrating the impact of minimum pricing on a range of health indicators and the experience of Canadian provinces where forms of price regulation has led to reductions in alcohol related harm. In contrast, the policy has met with significant opposition from certain sectors of the alcohol industry.

It is too simplistic, however, to see this debate as a clash between public health campaigners on the one hand, and industry on the other. Research* conducted by my colleagues and I at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine into the process of alcohol policy making in the UK reveals a range of different positions within the alcohol industry on minimum pricing and other issues such as taxation.

These broadly reflected the underlying interests of those concerned, though a principled opposition to government intervention in the market was evident in some cases. Some producers with ambitions to expand their market share in emerging economies and to lobby for favourable regulatory conditions there saw minimum pricing in the UK as a potential barrier to market access and an argument in favour of regulating alcohol markets elsewhere.

Minimum pricing would impact mainly on off-trade sales and products such as wine and spirits sold principally through this channel. Thus, while the on-trade (pubs, bars and clubs) were receptive to the idea of minimum pricing, many off-trade retailers, including many of the largest supermarkets were opposed. Again though, disagreement was evident even among supermarket retailers.

Producers of different types of drinks also adopted different positions on minimum pricing. Wine and spirit producers opposed the measure, while some beer and cider producers were in favour. Again, though, the beer sector was divided, with some brewers vehemently opposed.

What is revealing in the face of such division is the extent to which those groups opposed to minimum pricing were able to mobilise in opposition to the measures introduced in Scotland. Our research indicates that the anti-minimum pricing position became the dominant industry voice.

Industry trade associations found it hard to adopt common positions but, in the case of the largest trade associations, ended up opposing minimum pricing. This reflects the vehemence of the opposition expressed by those organisations against minimum pricing compared to the more tentative support offered by those in the industry in favour. It reflects also the ability of the largest organisations to articulate their views effectively both by acting individually and by working collectively through trade associations.

What lessons can we draw from this for the current policy debate? We know that there is significant opposition to minimum pricing among many alcohol producers and retailers, driven both by their commercial interests in the UK and, in the case of producers, elsewhere in the world. We know also that they are politically influential and able to mobilise and coordinate their resources in opposition to policies which are likely to damage their commercial interests.

In considering the measures launched today both government and the public must be aware of the arguments in favour of minimum pricing and the motivations of those opposing them.

* Hawkins, B; Holden, C; McCambridge, J; (2012) Alcohol industry influence on UK alcohol policy: A new research agenda for public health. Critical public health. DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2012.658027

* Holden, C; Hawkins, B; McCambridge, J; (2012) Cleavages and co-operation in the UK alcohol industry: A qualitative study. BMC public health. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-483

* Holden, C; Hawkins, B; (2012) ‘Whisky gloss’: The alcohol industry, devolution and policy communities in Scotland. Public Policy and Administration. DOI: 10.1177/0952076712452290

(Image: Glass of beer. Credit: Stock.xchng/ChrisChidsey)

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