10 February 2014

Minimum Pricing for Alcohol 'Effectively Targets Harmful Drinkers'

A minimum price per unit of alcohol, as recommended by NICE, effectively targets high-risk drinkers while having little impact on moderate drinkers, according to a new study.

The study published in the Lancet, estimated how people from various income brackets and socioeconomic groups would change their drinking habits if a minimum price for alcohol of 45p per unit was implemented.

The results showed that minimum pricing would have the greatest impact on people whose drinking is considered to be harmful, which was defined as consumption of over 50 units per week for men and more than 35 units per week for women.

Around three-quarters of the total reduction in alcohol consumption from minimum pricing would occur among such drinkers, leading to an estimated 860 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year, and a reduction of 29,900 hospital admissions per year.

By contrast, the effect of minimum pricing on moderate drinkers across income levels was found to be very small - with a reduction in consumption of just 1.6 units per person per year, and an increase in spending of just 78p more per person per year.

The group most affected by minimum pricing was found to be harmful drinkers on low incomes, reducing their alcohol intake by an estimated 300 units per year, with reductions in mortality much greater than for drinkers in any other group.

Introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol is one of several public health measures recommended by NICE to tackle alcohol misuse. A range of these measures can be carried out by local authorities and partner organisations, and are summarised in its local government briefing on alcohol.

At a policy and strategic level, NICE says making alcohol less affordable, based on a minimum price per unit, is a highly effective way of reducing alcohol-related harm, which can both help improve the health of communities and reduce costs.

Though minimum pricing is yet to be made mandatory at a national level, some authorities have started to implement such measures locally.

For example in 2013, Newcastle City Council updated its licensing policy to encourage business ownersapplying for new licences to introduce a minimum unit price of 50p per unit to all alcohol products sold on their premises.

Further local government recommendations from NICE include maintaining and developing local partnerships to support alcohol education in schools, using local health crime and related trauma data to map the extend of alcohol-related problems locally before developing or reviewing an alcohol policy, and prioritising measures such as screening services as 'invest to save measures'.

Introducing such measures could also address the economic burden posed by alcohol-related harm. Estimates suggest that alcohol misuse in Leeds cost the economy around £437 million in 2008/09 alone. In addition, alcohol-related absenteeism led to 430,000 working days lost in Leeds, carrying associated costs of £52.5 million.

Professor Petra Meier, Director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, and one of the study's authors, said: "Our study finds no evidence to support the concerns highlighted by government and the alcohol industry that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.

"Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol. By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities."

Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE, commented: "The Lancet study provides further evidence that setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol would effectively target consumption among drinkers whose level is harmful.

“While minimum pricing is yet to be made mandatory at a national level, there are a range of measures that local government can take to tackle this major public health issue and improve the health of their communities.

"These recommendations are summarised in the NICE's public health briefing on tackling alcohol misuse, and could help reduce the estimated £2.9 billion in healthcare costs alcohol-related harm it incurs each year."