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Northern Ireland proceeds with minimum pricing policy

Published:  03 December, 2014

The Northern Ireland Executive is pressing ahead with plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol, despite similar plans in Scotland being reviewed the European Court of Justice.  

NI MUPThe news has been welcomed by Northern Ireland's on-tradeThe table shows the potential new prices, should minimum pricing be introduced in Northern Ireland.

Health Minister Jim Wells said the level of harm caused by "excessive alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland is staggering". The cost to Northern Ireland's economy is put at £900 million per year, with healthcare costs estimated at £240 million per annum.

Northern Ireland's Department of Health commissioned a report from the University of Sheffield's Alcohol Research Group, which shows that introducing a minimum price would reduce alcohol related deaths by 63 per year and save healthcare services £1.8 million within the first 12 months and £400 million over 20 years.

Sheffield's research has led the field in the minimum pricing debate, at times controversially, in the past few years. This latest report suggests there would be a reduction in consumption of alcohol across Northern Ireland by 5.7%, although it also states that such a policy would have "negligible effects" on drinks spending by moderate drinkers.A 50p minimum price would mean paying an extra £4.70 per year, while the effects on moderate drinkers living below the poverty line are estimated at an additional 50p per person per year.

Those affected, the study argues, would be high risk drinkers who spend almost £3,500 per year on alcohol. It is expected to reduce their drinking by 386 units - the equivalent of 190 pints of beer or 40 bottles of wine.   

Colin Angus, from ScHARR who authored the report, said: "The results of this study show that minimum pricing is a well targeted intervention, with the greatest impact on the heaviest drinkers who suffer the most harm as a result of their drinking whilst moderate drinkers remain largely unaffected."

Wells said the "financial burden can never fully describe the incalculable impact that alcohol misuse has on individuals, on families, and on our communities in Northern Ireland.  Alcohol misuse remains a significant public health issue for Northern Ireland. We owe it to those individuals who drink heavily, and their families, to do something about this."Subject to agreement from the NI Executive, Wells plans to host a public consultation on the issue.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Irish Retail Consortium, said: "Most major retailers believe minimum pricing of alcohol is unfair to responsible consumers and the wrong approach to tackling excessive consumption. It will simply penalise the vast majority of consumers who already drink less than the government's recommended limits. Irresponsible drinking has cultural causes and we are targeting those through clear labelling, education and support for targeted awareness campaigns which are helping consumers drink responsibly."

But Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, welcomed the news, saying: "Here in Northern Ireland, we have been faced with various alcohol issues and the availability of incredibly cheap alcohol, namely by the large supermarkets, has had a serious impact on issues such as health and antisocial behaviour. It has now become acceptable for large retailers to sell alcohol at a loss and in some cases offer customers alcohol which is cheaper than bottled water. 

"It is important to say however that minimum pricing will not be the panacea for harmful drinking practices, nor will it drive more people back to the pub. Where we will see some difference however, is the move away from trying to tackle our alcohol problems simply through higher taxation and regulatory obligations. These measures have never proven to be really effective."