Alcohol price controls will boost health, help hospitals and save lives

Cost of alcohol across healthcare, crime and social protection may be €3.7bn a year

Over two-thirds of our alcohol is consumed at home. This is largely driven by easy access to very cheap alcohol in supermarkets and convenience shops.

Over two-thirds of our alcohol is consumed at home. This is largely driven by easy access to very cheap alcohol in supermarkets and convenience shops.

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Minimum unit pricing (MUP), a central pillar of Ireland’s public health approach to reducing alcohol use across society, comes into effect on January 4th.

This measure addresses the widespread availability of exceptionally cheap, strong alcohol throughout the retail sector. It aims to reduce the levels of alcohol use, especially among the heaviest drinkers and younger people who are most likely to consume cheap forms of strong alcohol.

Minimum unit pricing, as set out in the Public Health Alcohol Act (2018), is a means of establishing a mandatory floor price per unit of alcohol, ensuring that alcohol products cannot be sold beneath a certain cost to the public. Unlike increasing taxation, which affects the price of all alcohol products in retail and hospitality sectors, MUP addresses the price of only the cheapest, strongest alcohol, almost exclusively in the retail sector.

Prof Frank Murray, incoming president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Photograph: Fergal Phillips
Prof Frank Murray is chair of Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland. Photograph: Fergal Phillips

In Ireland, one standard drink in Ireland contains 10 grammes of alcohol. The minimum price for one standard drink will now be €1. Most alcoholic drinks are already above this, especially in pubs, clubs and restaurants, according to the Health Service Executive.

A pub measure of spirits (35.5ml), a small glass of wine (12.5 per cent volume), and a half pint of normal beer are all standard drinks.

For example, a 12.5 per cent bottle of wine has 7.4 standard drinks and from January 2022 cannot be sold for less than €7.40.

Cheap drink

For many years, Ireland’s pattern of alcohol consumption has been shifting from the pubs to our homes. Over two-thirds of our alcohol is now consumed at home. This change has largely been driven by widespread easy access to very cheap alcohol in supermarkets and convenience shops.

The World Health Organisation Europe’s review of alcohol pricing policy actions states there is “a robust evidence base” supporting the effectiveness of MUP in reducing alcohol consumption and harm, particularly among the heaviest drinkers.

Emerging data from both Scotland, and more recently Wales, as well as a number of eastern states of the European region and Australia’s Northern Territory, adds to an already substantial body of evidence from Canada, which demonstrates that MUP can bring about meaningful beneficial change.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing in itself will not be the 'silver bullet' to resolve all our difficulties from alcohol use in Ireland

In Ireland, where three lives are lost every day to alcohol-related illness and incident, the projected modelling carried in 2013 by the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group estimated that, with MUP in place, alcohol-attributable deaths would be reduced by approximately 197 per year after 20 years. By this time, the full effects of the policy will be seen, due to the time-lag involved with many serious alcohol-related illnesses, such as liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related cancers.

Macroeconomic burden

We could also see almost 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year, a reduction in alcohol-fuelled crime and workplace absences, while the total societal value of these reductions in health, crime and work place harms is estimated at €1.7 billion.

In its “Preventing Harmful Alcohol Use”, the OECD, using its long-term economic model, assessed the macroeconomic burden of alcohol is lowering Ireland’s gross domestic product by 1.88 per cent annually. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform estimates the societal costs of alcohol, across healthcare, criminal justice and social protection measures, could be as high as €3.7 billion annually.

The introduction of minimum unit pricing in itself will not be the “silver bullet” to resolve all our difficulties from alcohol use in Ireland but, similar to the public health initiatives to reduce tobacco use and improving public health outcomes, price is important. Equally, given that the rate per gram of alcohol was set in 2013, sustaining its efficacy in the face of growing inflation is vital.

In society that simply drinks too much and too often, measures that can curb the consumption of alcohol are a most welcome development.

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