Government plans to impose a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol will cut hospital admissions by almost 40,000 and the associated death toll by more than a 1000, says a leading economist in an article published on bmj.com today.
But no minimum pricing policy is more sobering than a recession, claims John Appleby, Chief Economist at health think tank the King’s Fund.
In an economic analysis of the impact of spending patterns and alcohol consumption in the UK, he says that the minimum unit price tag will also cut alcohol consumption by 2.4% across the population.
For nearly half a century, spending on alcohol in the UK has more than doubled in real terms between 1964 and 2004. And apart from brief periods since 1980, which have generally coincided with economic recessions and lower disposable incomes, alcohol is now much more affordable than it was 30 years ago, he says.
But over the past five years, spending has fallen by 17% in real terms and returned to 1996 levels. This is only partly due to the recent recession, he says. This is reflected in binge drinking patterns among young men, which have fallen sharply in recent years, accelerating a trend started in 1998.
In 2010 spending on booze increased marginally, with UK households shelling out around £42.1 billion on alcohol and every adult spending an average of £17 a week on alcohol.
“Is this a lot?” he asks. “One answer—to adapt an old joke—is that it depends if it’s more than your GP spends,” he writes. “With GPs’ average incomes touching £110,000, they may well spend more than their patients (median income before tax £19,600), but might drink less (as they are likely to buy more expensive alcohol),” he suggests.
Hospital data for England show that admissions linked to booze doubled between 2002 and 2010 to around 265,000. Similarly, alcohol-related deaths rose consistently between 2001 and 2008, although they fell slightly in 2009 to 6584 in England.
“Whether or not this all constitutes a significant problem now – given lags in health and other impacts of drinking and recent falls in consumption – the impact of various price and non-price interventions to reduce drinking show significant impacts," he writes.
“For the government’s proposed minimum price tactic of 40 pence per unit of alcohol the impacts include a reduction in the mean annual consumption per drinker of 2.4%, in deaths of 1149 annually, and in hospital admissions of 38, 900 annually,” he writes.
And he concludes: “A 50 pence minimum price would more than double all these effects. Neither, however, rivals the sobering effects of a good (sic) economic recession.”