Charging a minimum price for alcohol in the UK would hit heavy drinkers but have little impact on moderate consumers with low incomes, a study has found.
Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield, led research into the effects of introducing a minimum alcohol cost of 45p per unit, or £1.35 for a glass of wine, would be – the results of which were published in the Lancet medical journal.
He said: “Overall, the impact of a minimum unit price policy on moderate drinkers would be very small, irrespective of income.
“The policy would mainly affect harmful drinkers, and it is the low income harmful drinkers – who purchase more alcohol below the minimum unit price threshold than any other group – who would be most affected.
“Policy makers need to balance larger reductions in consumption by harmful drinkers on a low income against the large health gains that could be experienced in this group from reductions in alcohol-related illness and death.”
The greatest impact would be upon 5% of the population whose drinking is categorised as “harmful” defined as men who consume more than 50 units of alcohol a week and women who consume more than 35.
Harmful drinkers in the bottom fifth of the income bracket were predicted to reduce their alcohol intake by almost 300 units per year with the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing.
This group spends on average just under £2,700 a year on alcohol, with around two fifths of the alcohol consumed bought for less than 45p per unit.
In contrast, moderate drinkers in the lowest income group were predicted to reduce their consumption by a mere 3.8 units per year – the equivalent of two pints of beer.
By setting a minimum alcohol cost of 45p per unit and £1.35 for a glass of wine, 860 alcohol-related deaths and 29,900 hospital admissions per year could be expected to be prevented.
Professor Petra Meier, co-author and director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, 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.”
Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on alcohol and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “It is excellent to have this important confirmation of what we have been telling UK Government – a minimum unit price for alcohol would not damage the pockets of moderate drinkers whatever their income, and is an evidence-based policy that is exquisitely targeted at those, and those around them, who are currently suffering harm.”
“It is time for Government to stop listening to the vested interests of the drinks industry and act.”
Earlier this month the UK Home Office announced new rules that would prevent the sale of cheap alcohol ahead of the World Cup by setting a minimum cost for alcoholic drinks.
The rules, which will come into force from April 6, will mean a 440ml can of 5% strength beer cannot be sold for less than 50p, a 75cl bottle of vodka for under £10.16 and a bottle of 12.5% wine for under £2.41.