The administration’s Alcohol Strategy released for consultation in November proposes a 45p/unit minimum price to combat anti-social behavior and crime, a step welcomed by health bodies like the British Medical Association (BMA), which nonetheless prefers a minimum price of at least 50p/unit.
According to UK Home Office predictions, minimum unit pricing will cut crime by 3.3% and 5,240 incidents per year; hospital admissions will fall by 24,600 and there will be 714 fewer deaths annually after 10 years.
However, the European Commission reportedly sent a nine-page legal opinion to the British Government warning that minimum prices were illegal, and suggesting that it raise taxes instead to increase prices.
Carlsberg UK corporate affairs director Bruce Ray said the brewer welcomed UK government attempts to tackle alcohol-related misuse and supported strategies ensuring alcohol could be enjoyed responsibly.
“However, we do not agree that setting a minimum unit price for alcohol will solve alcohol misuse. We are surprised that the government have chosen to progress with a policy of this nature when alcohol consumption has steadily decreased since 2004,” he added.
Premature public consultation?
Given current legal comments from both Scotland and Europe, and since many consumers appeared to oppose such government-dictated interventions – which will mean beer cannot be sold for less than around 90p/can ($1.60), Ray said he believed the unit price uncertainty made a public consultation on the plans premature.
Scotland’s 50p/unit legislation – due to be introduced in April 2013 – has already been branded disproportionate by the European Commission, which fears the measure could unfairly restrict foreign alcohol imports, while the Scotch Whiskey Association is mounting a court challenge to the law.
“As the Alcohol Strategy recognizes, it is a small minority of people who misuse alcohol and a blanket approach will not tackle the root cause. This requires education and a focus on ‘harmful drinking’ rather than consumption of alcohol,” Ray added.
The Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) also opposes minimum unit pricing, and a spokesman told this publication that it would “unfairly punish millions of consumers and businesses across the UK”.
“There is no simple link between price, consumption and alcohol misuse, countries with the highest alcohol taxes and the highest prices are also those where alcohol misuse is a problem,” the spokesman said.
“In the UK, consumers already pay far higher prices for alcohol compared to our EU neighbours, yet UK consumption levels are similar to France or Spain where taxation and general pricing are much lower.
‘Why is the Government pushing ahead?’
Minimum unit pricing had not been successful anywhere worldwide, the spokesman said, and evidence for its success was limited to ‘modelling projections’ from the University of Sheffield, which WSTA said the Adam Smith Institute had called ‘speculative’ due to assumptions about the price/consumption relationship.
“It is hard to understand why the Government is pushing ahead with its proposals for minimum unit pricing, when there is a wall of opposition in Europe, a legal challenge in Scotland, a lack of any real evidence to support minimum unit pricing and serious divisions across [the UK] Cabinet [where government ministers meet],” the WSTA spokesman said.
Carlsberg’s Ray said that programmes such as the charity DrinkAware, and the UK Public Health Responsibility Deal, showed that all stakeholders within the alcohol industry (including suppliers and retailers) could join forces to promote responsible drinking.
“At Carlsberg, we continue to support other initiatives within the government’s alcohol strategy such as the initiative to encourage lower strength beers and reducing the number of alcohol units consumed each year,” Ray added.
“We have already responded by reducing the alcohol strength of Skol to 2.8% and Carlsberg Export to 4.8%.”
You can access documents relating to the UK government's Alcohol Strategy consultation here.