The price we pay for cheap alcohol
Writing for PoliticsHome, Conservative MP David Burrowes calls for the Government to increase tax on strong ciders, saying there is no logic in a can of cider being cheaper than a bottle of water.
Many of us will be deeply shocked by the results of the Alcohol Health Alliance’s (AHA) recent investigation into the ubiquity of cheap alcohol, which uncovered three litre bottles of strong cider sold for as little as £3.49. That means the alcoholic equivalent of 53 shots of vodka for the price of a standard off-peak cinema ticket. Or to put it another way, over double the adult weekly drinking guidelines for £5.75, the average child’s weekly pocket money.
Yet for doctors, alcohol treatment centres and homelessness charities, these findings are all too familiar. For years now, they have seen their patients and clients migrate towards the cheap, strong ‘white’ ciders and warned of the consequences. By and large, these products are not purchased for their taste – most have barely seen an apple - but they represent by far the best ‘bang for buck’ for those only interested in consuming the most possible alcohol at the lowest possible cost.
There is no logic in the current situation where a can of cider can be cheaper than a bottle of water. High strength ciders - typically 7.5% ABV - are by far the cheapest drinks on a per unit basis, available for as little as 16p per unit. We can add the AHA’s report to a growing pile of research, which shows that white cider accounts for a quarter of the alcohol consumed by heavy drinkers in treatment, and that the vast majority of white cider is consumed by people with severe alcohol dependency. These statistics chime with the homelessness charity Thames Reach’s reports that white cider is “killing more people than heroin or crack”.
Social justice is rightly at the heart of this Government’s activities, and the Government will follow this up in its Social Justice Strategy, supporting a holistic, joined-up response to entrenched poverty – which concerns family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt. Addressing harmful drinking is a critical component of this agenda or else we risk neglecting the, 2.6 million children who live with a parent whose drinking puts them at risk and the 700,000 children who live with a dependent drinker.
The imperative for Government action on white cider is particularly clear. This is a market created, to a significant extent, by perverse incentives in the alcohol tax system. Ciders of 7.5% ABV attract the lowest duty per unit of any alcoholic product, and less than a third as much duty as beers of the same strength. This incentivises cider producers to formulate high strength drinks by giving them a head start in the race to produce the strongest cheapest alcohol. The damage of high strength cider will continue far beyond the lives of those it claims unless we accept there is a need to tackle the pocket money prices of such harmful products.
The inclusion of alcohol in the forthcoming Life Chances (or whatever is the new buzz ‘social justice’ word) Strategy is essential in order to tackle inequalities. In September, I tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill and urged the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to review the anomalies in the structure of alcohol duties which support such low prices and contribute to such human misery. Whether in the autumn statement in a couple of weeks’ time, or the Budget next March, I hope the Government will see the need for a targeted increase in tax on strong ciders – a move that would save lives, support families and strengthen communities.
David Burrowes is Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate