Lord Rennard: Delays to minimum alcohol pricing cost 65 lives a day
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard writes ahead of his parliamentary question today on the cost benefits to the NHS and police of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in England.
Today, I will be suggesting to the Health Minister in the Lords that England should follow the rest of the UK in moving to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
Our relationship with alcohol has changed. The ‘Great British Pub’ is internationally recognised as an integral part of our culture. But we buy more than two thirds of our alcohol in shops & supermarkets, and drinks sold for consumption at home are widely available at very cheap prices. Alcohol is dramatically more affordable today than it has been in decades: new figures released today by the Institute of Alcohol Studies show that supermarket beer is almost 188% more affordable today than thirty years ago, and 22% more affordable even than in 2012. Greater affordability helps to fuel alcohol consumption and the consequences for many people, not just those who consume cheap alcohol, can be dire.
Heavy drinking places a particular burden on our stretched NHS and policing services. Since 1992, the rate of alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales has risen by more than 60%. Alcohol related hospital admissions have doubled in ten years. There are now more than one million alcohol-related hospital admissions a year.
Almost half of all violent crime is linked to alcohol, costing the country an estimated £11 billion a year. Alcohol takes up as much as half of emergency services’ time. This is time that could be spent fighting crime and saving lives. Public Health England has estimated that alcohol and the problems it causes costs society as much as £52 billion a year.
Change is possible and achievable. Introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol is projected to save lives, cut crime and save money. A minimum unit price sets a floor price below which a single unit of alcohol cannot be sold. Unlike tax, minimum unit pricing is a highly targeted measure that deals only with the cheapest, strongest products – the products consumed by the heaviest, most vulnerable drinkers. While it is no magic bullet – and it is essential we see the Government support properly funded treatment services – minimum unit pricing would discourage consumption among those drinking at harmful levels, while having little impact on the majority of drinkers. A 50p minimum unit price would leave pub prices untouched, and it would still be possible to buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket for £4.50.
A 50p minimum unit price has been modelled by internationally renowned researchers to save 525 lives and reduce hospital admissions by 22,000 every year. Over 20 years, it is projected to save the health service £1.3 billion. It is expected to lead to 36,400 fewer crimes per year in England - a saving of £711 million to policing in the first five years alone. This policy is easy and cheap to implement and the potential rewards are substantial.
Devolved governments have already taken decisive action on cheap alcohol, which means English citizens are in danger of being left behind. The Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish Governments are all either implementing, or have announced their intentions to implement the policy. Our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland are also discussing the measure, with a view to implement it later this year.
I want to see that ministers are taking the issue of cheap alcohol seriously. With each day that the Government equivocates on this, 65 people die from alcohol-related causes. This is a step that must now be taken.
Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat peer and author of the political memoir ‘Winning Here’