MPs push for minimum unit pricing on alcohol

20 July, 2012

An influential committee of MPs has backed government plans to introduce a minimum unit price on alcohol to combat the “insidious and pervasive” impact of binge drinking. 

The Health Committee agreed with the measures – which industry bodies have branded “damaging” and “ineffective” – in its report on the government’s new Alcohol Strategy.

But it urged the government to include get-out clauses in case the scheme proves ineffective, and warned it must be constantly monitored and adapted. 

“The committee supports the decision to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol, but the government needs to recognise that setting the price is not a one-off event,” said committee chair Stephen Dorrell.

“A transparent process must be put in place in order to ensure the price level is evidence-based and monitored over time to assess its effectiveness. We also recommend that there should be a sunset clause on the implementation of a minimum price so it only remains in place if it is shown to be effective in reducing harmful drinking.”

A sunset clause in Scotland – where minimum unit pricing is scheduled to come in next year – will see the legislation automatically reviewed after six years. 

WSTA chief executive Miles Beale hit out at the committee’s “readiness to support minimum unit pricing when, by its own admission, there is a lack of evidence about the specific effects of different price levels”.  

He added: “Given that, it must make sense for the government to apply a sunset clause to minimum pricing as the committee suggests.”

The Health Committee said the minimum unit price in England could be different to the 50p per unit introduced in Scotland, because it should be “evidence-based and designed to be effective”.

Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “As we’ve consistently said, minimum pricing of alcohol would be ineffective in tackling misuse, would penalise responsible drinkers, would be illegal and would damage the Scotch whisky industry.”

The committee acknowledged that “most people enjoy alcohol without evidence of significant harm to their health” but said the industry “must acknowledge its advertising messages do have an effect on attitudes to alcohol consumption”.

It questioned the effectiveness of industry pledges to reduce the number of alcohol units in the market. 

The committee also wants rules on advertising tightened to avoid under-18s being targeted, and called on Public Health England to commission a study into the effectiveness of England introducing a French-style ad ban. 

Drinkaware chairman Derek Lewis backed the committee’s calls to tackle the “increasing risk” of binge drinking among adults. Lewis said: “Many consumers are unaware of the long-term health risks of regularly drinking above the guidelines, including cancer, heart and liver disease – which has no warning signs.”

Portman Group chief executive Henry Ashworth added: “We welcome the committee’s view that the majority of people enjoy alcoholic products responsibly and that alcohol producers and retailers are vital partners in helping to tackle the harms caused by misuse.  

“While we are pleased the committee commends the Responsibility Deal approach, it is deeply disappointing it has failed to understand the significance of the innovative unit reduction pledge.”

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