Minimum unit pricing in focus as study suggests potential to save lives

By Stephen Topping, Local Democracy Reporter

alcohol license
REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Health chiefs are rallying behind calls for minimum pricing on alcohol after research suggested it would save lives and reduce crime in local communities.

A minimum price of 50p per unit was introduced in Scotland in May 2018 and the same policy will be rolled out across Wales in March – but plans for the levy in England were rejected back in 2013.

Now, research from the University of Sheffield suggests that if the charge was introduced in Cheshire West, there would be 253 fewer crimes a year and 103 deaths prevented in the first 20 years.

Donald Reid, public health consultant at Cheshire West and Chester Council, told the borough’s health and wellbeing board on 15 January: “We know that alcohol has become drastically more affordable over the last 20 to 30 years, and a lot of retailers will actually use it as a loss-leader to bring more people into their business.

“For England, it was taken off the table as a policy, and as a public health community we were quite disappointed about that.

“We believe the evidence is robust, from widening research and the results in Canada and now Scotland, that this does have the desired impact.”

Reid told the board that the north is ‘disproportionately affected’ by alcohol harm and inequality, so local authorities across the region asked the University of Sheffield to investigate the possible benefits of minimum alcohol pricing.

It found that 87 per cent of alcohol sold in Cheshire West costs less than 50p per unit and is consumed by ‘increasing and higher risk drinkers’, who make up 29 per cent of the borough’s population – while 75 adults die due to alcohol consumption every year.

The study also found that in Cheshire West, there are currently 4,515 hospital admissions caused by alcohol each year, costing the NHS £20.2 million.

But with a 50p minimum unit price, the study suggests there would be 158 fewer hospital admissions a year, saving the NHS £372,290.

Meanwhile, the research found that 14,869 crimes are currently caused by alcohol each year – including 3,414 thefts or robberies, 7,817 incidents of criminal damage and 3,638 violent incidents.

But if the minimum charge is introduced, the University of Sheffield says that 56 fewer thefts or robberies would occur a year, plus 133 fewer incidents of criminal damage and 64 fewer violent incidents.

Reid said: “For us, I think [the research] is a gift for a lot of reasons. It supports a lot of our thinking around alcohol and the impacts of alcohol.

“It demonstrates that locally, this policy change would address inequalities, it would have an impact on early death, it would have an impact on crime.”

Reid told the board that northern councils have explored ‘going it alone’ under the Communities Act – meaning a local minimum unit price could come into effect.

He suggested there would be sufficient evidence for the need of the policy and its effectiveness in Scotland – but that councils would prefer a national policy to be introduced.

Cllr Val Armstrong, cabinet member for adult social care and public health on Cheshire West and Chester Council, said the research was ‘persuasive’.

Members of the health and wellbeing board – including representatives from CWAC, local NHS bodies and voluntary groups – agreed to endorse the policy, lobby MPs and raise awareness of minimum unit pricing.