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Raising the price of alcohol, but at what cost?

As you may or not be aware, the government is considering increasing the price of alcohol to a minimum of 45p per unit in England, with Scotland proposing a price of 50p per unit. The government and the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) take the stance this move will save taxpayers’ money on alcohol-related hospital admissions and reduce booze-induced violent crime, whilst the drinks industry say it will hit ‘safe-drinkers’ the hardest without addressing the underlying problems. Let’s face it, these are two sides of the argument presented by self-interest biased organisations. What is more interesting, however, is that barely anybody is talking about the impact this change in policy will have on the individual

Alcohol abuse, at large, affects men more than women. According to, the leading UK alcohol charity, men are more likely than women to binge drink and become alcohol dependant, and according to, men are more likely to drink prior to taking their own lives. It is widely acknowledged that alcohol dependency can be a cause, and a symptom, of depression, particularly in men. Alcohol consumption habits and excessive drinking in this country is an issue that needs to be addressed, but is raising the price of alcohol a panacea for irresponsible alcohol consumption and anti social behaviour in the UK?  Almost certainly not.  It’s fair to say that the tradition of ‘going out on the piss’ is so deeply entrenched in our society (Booze Britain, anyone?) that a price rise is the equivalent of putting an Elastoplast on a broken leg, but is it a step in the right direction?

Let’s start by looking at the positives; after all, this isn’t a notion that’s appeared over-night. It’s easy to see how the price increase could discourage people from binge-drinking. In today’s economy, a lot of people are struggling to cover the basics, such as rent and food, let alone being able to afford regular sessions down the pub.  The increase in the amount of pubs and venues that have closed down nationally over recent years is symptomatic of this reduction of readies in our wallets.  A reduction in binge-drinking will inevitably lead to less alcohol induced anti-social behaviour. In fact research, undertaken by Sheffield University for the government in 2012, shows the price increase would reduce the amount of alcohol consumption by 4.3%, leading to 2,000 fewer alcohol related deaths and 66,000 fewer hospital admissions after 10 years. Researchers also suggested the number of crimes would drop by around 20,000 a year.

Some impressive figures there – ‘suggested’ rather than proven, of course – but attention grabbing, nonetheless. The aforementioned figures however, relate to binge-drinking, but the CDC also states that “most people who binge-drink are not alcoholics or alcohol dependant”. So what does this all mean for those who are dependent on alcohol?

Well, it’s not going to force them all to stop, that’s for sure. Alcoholic dependency is an addiction; a very serious one which, according to Alcohol Concern, currently effects 1.6 million people in the UK.  It’s also one of the only addictions that can result in death if the addict goes ‘cold turkey’ and, like any other dependency, alcoholics aren’t necessarily able to quit drinking without external help.

So, what does an alcoholic do in order to keep on drinking? In most cases, they will most likely spend even more of their money in order to fuel their addiction. And where does the money come from? Well, it could be from a number of places, some more extreme than others. Some may take out ‘quick payday loans’ at enormous interest rates and get into crippling debt, some may turn to crime, or maybe they’ll spend less on their own, or worse, their children’s, food…

There’s been a lot in the news over the last couple of years about the increase in sales of “fake” or counterfeit alcohol since the recession hit in 2008, which is sold cheaply and can contain dangerous poisons and lethal amounts of methanol. According to a recent report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), counterfeit alcohol is costing the treasury £1.2 billion a year. This can have disastrous effects on physical and mental health. If the price of alcohol increases,  it’s safe to say that the amount of counterfeit alcohol sold will also increase. This isn’t just going to affect people with alcohol dependencies. According to The Sun, back in late 2011 teens were setting up Facebook appreciation groups for the fake vodka brand Drops, for example “Drops Vodka — memory loss in liquid form”. There have already been a number of reported deaths from the consumption of fake alcohol. This is a problem that needs to be contained before it gets out of hand.  Raising the price of legal alcohol will not help, according the the IEA: “Evidence shows that the illicit alcohol market is…closely associated with high taxes, corruption and poverty. The affordability of alcohol appears to be the key determinant behind the supply and demand for smuggled and counterfeit alcohol.” However, they continue: “Demand for alcohol is relatively inelastic and drinkers have a series of options in front of them when real prices increase. They can do as the government hopes and drink less, but they can also do any of the following: make savings elsewhere in the household budget, switch from the on-trade to the off-trade, downshift to cheaper drinks, shop abroad, brew or distil their own alcohol,  buy counterfeit or smuggled alcohol, and finally buy surrogate alcohol (e.g. methanol, antifreeze, aftershave). The extent to which consumption patterns change depends on personal income and the price of drink.”

Sobering stuff.

While the increase in the price of booze may reduce anti-social behaviour and binge-drinking to a point, it will not force alcoholics in to giving up their addiction; it will simply make their addiction harder to maintain and with higher risks, and drive ‘binge drinkers’ towards cheaper and more dangerous highs. This could largely exacerbate the effects of depression in these people, and could have knock-on effects to people close to them. Alcoholics in general, especially the ones experiencing depression, don’t need extra financial hardship and risk in their lives, they need a helping hand and it’s safe to say that this new governmental price hike isn’t the way to achieve that.  This is not to suggest that booze should be cheap in order to allow alcoholics to continue drinking without risk, but should the plight of the addicted and the risk of counterfeit alcohol not be taken into consideration before this plan is put into action?

We’re not saying scrap the plan, of course, we’re just saying think of a plan that will have benefits and offer alternatives for individuals who need help, rather than just looking at the big figures. If a price rise is inevitable, perhaps some of the extra revenue raised could be invested in more comprehensive and readily available alcohol dependancy treatment centres or community advisory services? We understand the potential benefits. The fact is that some people turn to alcohol as a result of depression, and some people become depressed as a result of alcohol abuse. This plan has the possibility to prevent people from getting in to heavy drinking in the first place which is a good thing for those not already in the grips of addiction. However, for the policy to really benefit everyone, more needs to be done to help the people that already have real alcohol problems and raising the price of alcohol is not the answer.

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