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Minimum pricing would have negligible effect on moderate drinkers, says study

Published:  10 February, 2014

A minimum price of 45p per unit would cut deaths and hospital admissions among high-risk drinkers but have little impact on moderate drinkers, says a new University of Sheffield study.

Published today in the Lancet, the study considers how drinkers from different income groups would be affected by minimum pricing in terms of alcohol consumption and spending, alcohol-related deaths, illnesses, and costs to the health service.

It concluded that minimum pricing would have the most pronounced effect on the 5% of the population who are harmful drinkers - where they consumer upwards of 50 units for men or 35 for women.

The study claims 75% of the drop in consumption would come from harmful drinkers, adding that 860 fewer people would die from alcohol-related deaths per year, while hospital admissions would fall by 29,900 per year.

Harmful drinkers on the lowest incomes are projected to consume almost 300 fewer units per year under minimum pricing.

But the report showed that the effects on moderate drinkers would be very small. Moderate drinkers in the lowest income group would buy on average less than one unit of alcohol per week below the 45p threshold. This would mean an annual reduction of between three and eight units, with an increase in spending of just 4p per year.

Across the entire population, moderate drinkers are predicted to reduce their consumption by just 1.6 units and spend just 78p more per year.

Dr John Holmes from University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research, and the report's lead author, 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."

Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, and another author of the study, added: "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."

Trade reaction

Responding to the latest model from the University of Sheffield, Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, said: "The Sheffield model has been discredited and fails to reflect reality. The fact is alcohol consumption has fallen by 16% since 2004, ten times the amount suggested in the Sheffield model, and yet it has not led to the types of reduction in harms it predicted. This is because there is no simple link between price, consumption and harm; and because those who drink the most are the least likely to change their behaviour due to price increases.

"The government has rightly abandoned minimum unit pricing because of the absence of evidence and its impact on hard pressed consumers. Given it is also likely to be illegal under EU law, the government should instead continue to work with industry and other willing stakeholders to invest in education, to enforce existing laws and to support localised solutions that target the minority who misuse alcohol."