Tax hikes, ad ban not effective in fighting alcohol abuse

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Alcohol abuse, Alcoholism, Alcoholic beverage, Alcohol

The Wine and Spirit Association in the UK last week responded to
the interim report from the government body charged with
investigating means of tackling the growing problem of alcohol
abuse. While the report made no recommendations or suggestions, the
WSA nonetheless had a number of comments about some of the
assumptions made.

Alcohol misuse costs the National Health Service - and therefore British taxpayers - £1.7 billion a year, according to the report​, released in September by the government's Strategy Unit. It also claimed that alcohol-related accidents and illnesses land around 150,000 people a year in hospital, and that alcohol is associated with between 15,000 and 22,000 deaths every year. In addition to the cost to the NHS, alcohol-related crime costs the UK more than £7 billion while loss of productivity through absence or illness costs a further £6 billion.

Not surprisingly, top of the WSA's list was the question of whether restricting advertising for alcoholic beverages would reduce the level of alcohol abuse. Responding vigorously to the mere suggestion of a ban on alcohol ads, the WSA highlighted the case of France, where alcohol advertising is far more strictly regulated than the UK but where there has been no reduction in alcohol consumption as a result.

But the association also pointed to more concrete evidence from the domestic market. Beer and spirits, which are widely advertised, are in something of a decline, it said, while the relatively under-promoted wine business is booing.

But restricting adverts was not the only potential danger in the interim report. The government's advisors also gave detailed information about the relationship between high taxes and alcohol consumption - implying that an increase in taxation would also curb intake.

The WSA disagreed, saying that the UK already had some of the highest taxes in Europe (and that countries in Scandinavia where duties are even higher have some of the highest rates of alcohol abuse in the continent) and that pushing them any higher would simply lead to higher levels of smuggling. That in turn, the WSA argued, would lead to a greater number of underage drinkers and exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.

But the association also stressed that it recognised the need to do more to curb the rising number of cases of alcohol abuse in the UK, and put forward a number of suggestions of its own.

The WSA said it wanted to create a more Mediterranean approach to drinking, replacing the binge-style approach which fuels excessive alcohol consumption with one led by moderate but regular consumption.

It also called for the government to accelerate plans for a national identity card - controversial as such as scheme is - as this would make it easier to clamp down on underage drinking. The government should also do more to promote sensible drinking and urge companies to begin voluntarily labelling their products with the number of units, making it easier for drinkers to gauge exactly how much they are drinking.

The WSA, which represents about 200 member companies including importers, distributors and off-trade retailers of wines and spirits, as well as wine and spirit producers, also suggested that the figures cited in the report exaggerated the problem of binge drinking, and that the assessment of the cost of alcohol abuse on society was not tempered by any attempt to establish the positive value of sensible drinking to society and to the economy.

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