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Iain Stewart MP: A minimum unit price for alcohol has few discernible benefits – and plenty of downsides

STEWART IAINIain Stewart is Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes South. Follow Iain on Twitter.

I have considerable reservations about the efficacy of a minimum unit price for alcohol (MUP). I am concerned that it will penalise responsible drinkers but not tackle the problems of binge drinking.

I was therefore interested to see the edition of the Metro recently with a front-page story about a bold claim that a 30p rise in the price of a pint "can cut deaths by a third".  It is important to look carefully at these claims.

They are based on research from the University of Victoria Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, Canada which asserts that between 2002 and 2009 a 10% increase in the average minimum price for all alcoholic drinks was associated with a 32% reduction in alcohol-related deaths.

Yet official hospital records paint a different picture. They show that the number of deaths from alcohol actually went up from 1073 in 2002 to 1169 in 2009! I am therefore concerned about the statistics on which UK MUP policy is being built.

Researchers in charge of Sheffield Model that underpins the Government’s policy have described the accuracy of their own model as akin to "weather forecasting". The unmodelled, real life fact is that in the UK since 2004 overall alcohol consumption has dropped by 13%, but alcohol harms have gone up. How can a blanket policy of cutting consumption by increasing price be seen as the solution to the alcohol fuelled anti-social behaviour and binge drinking that we all want?

I have not yet seen convincing evidence that MUP will change behaviour on alcohol. However, I can see many downsides from such a policy. It will do little for my constituents who are responsible drinkers. MUP will unfairly penalise all responsible drinkers buying a bottle of wine or a multi-pack of beer, but will be more acutely felt by the poorest 30% of households who already tend to have the lowest consumption. For more information on the impact on responsible drinkers, the “why should we pay more” campaign has some interesting facts and figures.

We should also be cautious about the argument that it will help the pubs if we narrow the difference between prices in supermarkets and those at the bar – indeed it might make matters worse for our beleaguered pub trade.  With alcohol part of many people’s weekly shop, there is the risk that MUP will simply reduce the funds available to spend in the pub.

Nor am I convinced that a MUP would address the problem of binge drinking and anti-social behaviour which so disfigures our high streets at the weekends. It is not unusual for people to spend £50 on a big night out – so what difference will a few extra pounds make on the pre-loading booze bought in the off-licence?

Even the researchers behind the Sheffield Model have admitted that minimum pricing is not effective at tackling binge drinking by young people.

I am also concerned about the financial implications of MUP. Based on the Government’s own figures, MUP will cost consumers £5 billion over a Parliament with none of that money going to the Exchequer in tax. In the same period, the Treasury recognises it will lose £1 billion cash from excise duty with the projections for health and crime savings amounting to £715 million. So the net cost to Government would be in the order of £285 million at least, revenue which we might need to find elsewhere.

So, if we have all those millions to spend on harmful drinking why don’t we take the bull by the horns and invest that money on direct interventions targeted at harmful drinkers, cutting NHS and crime bills with new GP services, city centre booze buses, better enforcement of existing laws and Community Alcohol Partnerships which stop young people accessing alcohol? We can do it through the new Public Health Framework.

Then we wouldn’t need to punish the 78% of the public in the UK who drink responsibly with a price hike designed to tackle only those who abuse alcohol and is almost certainly destined to be ineffective – except in pushing up inflation by a further 0.2%!

I hope this has been a helpful contribution to the debate.


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