Welsh Assembly passes minimum alcohol pricing bill

The Welsh Assembly has passed a minimum alcohol unit pricing bill after a vote yesterday, with the measure expected to come into effect in the summer of next year.

The bill passed stage 3 of the approval process last week (12 June) which involved a detailed consideration of the bill by the Welsh Assembly and a series of amendments being suggested. The final vote (stage 4) resulted in the bill being passed yesterday evening.

Assembly members overwhelmingly voted in favour of the bill, with 45 votes for and five votes against the bill.

The Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill forms part of the Welsh government’s efforts to reduce excessive drinking and alcohol-related hospital admission costs. It has been reported that there were around 55,000 such admissions in Wales last year, costing the Welsh NHS over £150 million per annum.

If, like Scotland, a minimum unit price of 50p is agreed, it will mean that a can of cider would cost at least £1 and a bottle of wine £4.69.

Health Secretary Vaughan Gething, who took charge of the bill from Rebecca Evans in November last year, said: “I’m very pleased the National Assembly has given its seal of approval to our landmark legislation.

“Last year alone, there were over 500 alcohol-related deaths and nearly 55,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions in Wales, with the direct health care costs attributable to alcohol amounting to an estimated £159 million. But even more of an issue is the devastation that lies behind these figures. Devastation for families, impacts on communities, and consequences for our NHS staff and support services as they all cope with the aftermath of alcohol-related death and disease, every day.

“This legislation provides us with an opportunity for a step change. It gives us a chance to do more to address alcohol-related harms. And ultimately, it gives us a chance to do more to try to save lives. This legislation takes a sensible, targeted approach to a very real and evident problem in Wales today. But it will be supported by a range of additional actions being taken forward to support those in need – forming part of the Welsh Government’s wider Substance Misuse Strategy.

“Wales, like so many other western countries, has a problem with cheap, strong, readily-available alcohol. This legislation will make an important contribution to addressing this issue”.

A similar bill was passed in Scotland in 2012 but did not come into force until this year after it was challenged in a lengthly legal battle by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

The was welcomed by industry players such as the C&C Group, the producers of Tennent’s lager, however, the chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Miles Beale, was sceptical and stressed the need for frequent evaluation. 

Speaking when the Scottish minimum alcohol bill was implemented, he said: “Minimum Unit Pricing has been a very complex and costly measure to introduce. The Scottish Government’s policy will increase the price of around half of the alcohol on supermarket shelves and will impact most drinkers, particularly those on lowest incomes. The WSTA’s long held view is that MUP is likely to be ineffective in changing the behaviour of problem drinkers. There are also serious questions about the potential impact on cross border trade and illicit alcohol.

“It is vital therefore that the impact of on businesses and on consumers of the MUP experiment in Scotland is rigorously and objectively monitored and evaluated over time”.

Figures for 2017 published by NHS Scotland this week, the amount of alcohol sold per adult in Scotland outstrips England and Wales by 14%. The report also found almost half of all alcohol sold on the high street last year was priced at less than 50p a unit. It remains to be seen how the implementation of minimum alcohol pricing will effect the results.

Returning to Wales, a public consultation will be put in place later this year to determine the actual minimum unit price. Once decided, it is expected that the measure will be implemented in the summer of 2019.

Speaking in the House of Commons last month, junior health minister Steve Brine said the English government was developing a new alcohol strategy and reviewing the evidence for a similar minimum alcohol pricing measure in England.

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