Yet again we are talking about alcohol pricing as a realistic strategy for curbing Britain’s excessive drinking. I have been following with interest articles regarding the Government’s proposal to set minimum prices for units of alcohol. The minimum pricing strategy suggests that alcohol in the UK will not be sold at any less than 45p per unit.
This strategy is regarded as a quick fix
Certainly, the impact of problematic drinking on our communities and services such as the NHS is high, but I wonder if the answer is really to attempt to price people out of drinking alcohol. I think it would be fair to say that this strategy is regarded as a quick fix, rather than an attempt to address the issue of excessive drinking. What is needed is an integrated strategy that encourages people to address problematic drinking.
But will minimum pricing have much of an impact on alcohol consumption? There is no short term, quick fix for problematic drinking. A report by The Centre of Economics and Business Research suggests that unless problematic drinkers are priced out by significantly high price rises, they will find ways to maintain their drinking. In my experience, for people who have a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol it’s not really about whether they can afford it or not. For people who drink moderately, price rises may mean that they choose to drink less, or abstain completely. But this is clearly not the group of people who are being targeted by the pricing strategy; “this isn’t about stopping responsible drinking”.
The Alcohol strategy claims that minimum pricing will not impact on the pub trade, because alcohol prices in pubs are already high. Government levies on establishments such as pubs and clubs already price many people out of social drinking, and many choose to drink at home instead. A raise in pricing will not serve to entice people back to their local, but it may mean that for this less visible group of drinkers, problems develop where people choose to go without essentials or rack up debts in order to carry on drinking.
For people who feel unable to reduce their drinking, a price increase may encourage offences such as shoplifting. What the Government’s alcohol strategy does consider are tougher consequences for people committing crime as a result of excessive drinking. For people whose alcohol use leads to problematic behaviour such as offending, the Alcohol strategy proposes running trials of enforced sobriety schemes. I cannot see how attempting to force a person into abstinence fits with the Recovery Agenda. What is lacking from this strategy is a focus on long term solutions – putting more of a focus on encouraging people to make changes to their drinking by addressing the underlying reasons for it.
What the new alcohol strategy makes no mention of are the wider spread impact in terms of alcohol and drugs. Adfam proposes that ‘the future of alcohol policy should account for the effects of excessive drinking on families and children’. It is exactly this type of approach that marries with our Whole Person Recovery model – the idea that a person is less likely to recover without a network of support from their friends and family, and yet it is the same people who are most affected by their loved one’s addiction.
Moves to equip the public with the knowledge and skills to identify problems such as declining mental health and addiction and to empower them to work collaboratively towards solutions would surely benefit us all far more than trying to price people out of problematic drinking. Supportive relationships and good opportunities will be key protective factors in reducing and addressing problematic drinking in young people and our adult population.
The impact of problematic drinking on our communities and services such as the NHS is high
The person that wakes up in the morning and has to go and buy a litre of strong cider just to stop themselves being violently ill is unlikely to consider whether he can really afford it or not. The person that drinks excessively at the weekend, ‘pre-loading’ before going out with friends, will probably find that extra few quid to carry on with their habit.
It will take a much more integrated strategy to bring about a cultural shift in our drinking habits. Perhaps they will bring in a minimum price charge for chocolate next.