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Government will regret shelving plans to introduce minimum price for alcohol

Date posted: 17 Jul 2013

In his introduction to the Government’s 2012 Alcohol Strategy, the Prime Minister was clear: When it comes to the UK’s problems with alcohol, he wrote, a real effort must be made to ‘get to grips with the root cause of the problem. And that means coming down hard on cheap alcohol’.

‘So’, wrote Mr Cameron, ‘we are going to introduce a minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit’.

‘Of course’ he continued, ‘I know the proposals in this strategy won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing. Binge drinking is a serious problem. And I make no excuses for clamping down on it’.

Each of these statements is completely correct. But yesterday (17th July), and sixteen months after Mr Cameron’s words were published, it was announced that plans to introduce Minimum Unit Price (or MUP) have been shelved.

Addaction firmly believes that this is the wrong decision and one that the Government should and will regret making. Make no mistake, MUP is not the only thing they should be doing, but cheap alcohol causes immense harm and puts huge pressure on our police forces and our hospitals. And quite simply, it is a killer.

That is why, like many others working in the field of public health and alcohol treatment, we are extremely disappointed that a wealth of good evidence (showing how such a measure would save thousands of lives) has been shamefully ignored.

Since its inception, Addaction has worked as part of the Alcohol Responsibility Deal - a coalition of retailers, NGOs, public health providers and the drinks industry which (as its name suggests) has worked to create a more responsible attitude towards alcohol in this country. Central to this aim has been changing the ways in which alcohol is sold.

Of course, there have been many opposing views among members of the Responsibility Deal, and one of the main arguments against MUP has been that it would punish responsible drinkers. Addaction strongly disagrees with this assumption, as the evidence shows that people drinking within recommended guidelines will see no real difference in the amount they spend. Last year, the Prime Minister also agreed with us, writing ‘If the minimum price is around 40p a unit, it won’t affect the price of a pint in a pub. In fact, pubs may benefit by making the cheap alternatives in supermarkets more expensive’.

Yesterday, many of our colleagues understandably withdrew from the Responsibility Deal, stating that ‘it is perfectly clear that MUP has fallen victim to a concerted and shameful campaign of lobbying by sections of the drinks industry who are putting profits before health and public safety’. Addaction agrees that this message is the one that the government is sending, as do others – including the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who accused politicians of ‘roll[ing] over to big alcohol lobbyists’.

This cannot be the end of the matter. That’s why Addaction will retain its place in the Responsibility Deal to ensure our sector is represented, and so that discussions with government around MUP are quickly resumed. And we also urge councils in England and Wales to quickly instate proposals (such as those currently being considered by Cheshire East) to introduce minimum unit pricing at a local level.

David Cameron was right in his introduction to the government’s 2012 strategy. Then, he could see that alcohol is a public health issue, not a business issue. And while it is right that the drinks industry should take far more responsibility when it comes to the problems alcohol causes in the UK, this can only complement decisive legislation from government.

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