UK Alcohol Policy: an overview

If you are familiar with the ADAM trial you will know we are investigating whether additional support – in the forms of medication management delivered by pharmacists and contingency management – improves adherence to acamprosate medication that is prescribed for people with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence. Treatment for alcohol problems is an important part of recovery and Public Health England reports that around 115,000 adults access alcohol treatment services each year.

However when we look at statistics on alcohol treatment, we are only seeing part of the story. Alcohol Concern report that only 1% of the estimated 1.5 million dependent drinkers in the UK actually access treatment. The British Liver Trust states that liver disease is the only cause of death that is rising year on year. One way that the harms from alcohol can be tackled in a broader sense is through health policy designed to reduce alcohol consumption and related harms.

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1 image from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence

So what kinds of policies do we have already?

There is a long-standing and complex system of taxation and duty on alcohol, including a more recent ban on below-cost alcohol sales in England and Wales, as well as restrictions on alcohol advertising.

The most recent alcohol policy document was the 2012 UK Government’s Alcohol Strategy. The main priority areas here were pricing, giving power to local agencies, working with industry, and health information. However, this was a policy of the previous coalition government and there has not been an updated strategy following the Conservative administration which began in 2015.

The most high profile proposed policy has been setting a minimum price for alcohol. If prices increase, then alcohol consumption and alcohol harms should fall. In other countries (such as Canada), minimum pricing has been shown to reduce harm from alcohol and save lives.

How much will it cost?

  Available currently at…* Under a minimum price of 50p a unit…
Can of lager

(440ml at 4.8% ABV)

£0.71 £1.06

 

Bottle of white wine

(750ml at 12% ABV)

£3.30 £4.50

 

Bottle of vodka

(700ml at 37.5% ABV)

£10.00 £13.15
Large bottle of strong cider

(3l at 7.5% ABV)

£3.50 £11.25

*using Tesco.com and Iceland.co.uk prices 2nd November 2016

This minimum price is unlikely to have an impact on the prices of drinks in pubs, but will mean that drinks in the shops become more expensive.

In Scotland, legislation to implement minimum unit pricing for alcohol was passed back in 2012, but this legislation has been followed by years of legal challenges led by the Scotch Whisky Association. It was recently  announced that this policy does not violate any EU law, but again this has been followed by the Scotch Whisky Association’s decision to appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court. This protracted legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association is a perfect example of the tensions that exist between public health and big business. Scotland is the UK nation where alcohol minimum pricing has gained the most traction, and despite the repeated industry challenges, still has the potential to lay foundations for the rest of the UK.