Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Good News On Alcohol - A Preliminary Victory on Pricing

Amid the noise created by George Osborne's controversial budget, the Government's new Alcohol Strategy has not received much media coverage. But churches have given a cautious welcome to new action on the price of alcohol and broader measures aimed at combating problem drinking.

Since alcohol misuse is such a multi-faceted problem it is understandable that the Strategy contains ideas on the variety of relevant issues, including licensing laws, drinking culture and treatment. Encouragingly, the community aspect is addressed through commitments such as "strengthen local powers to control the density of premises licensed to sell alcohol, including a new health-related objective for alcohol licensing for this purpose".

However, many of the interesting proposals remain at a general level. The main exception is the Government's controversial decision - at long last - to commit firmly to minimum unit pricing in England and Wales, following calls by medics, charities and faith groups, including the Churches' recent Measure For Measure campaign. A similar proposal is at a more advanced stage in the Scottish Parliament, and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are working towards a cross-border alcohol strategy harmonising alcohol prices.

The Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and Baptist Union of Great Britain, along with its partners who wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this year, would like to thank all those who wrote to their MPs as part of the Measure For Measure campaign. There have been reports that disagreement over minimum unit pricing had been a bone of contention in finalising the Alcohol Strategy, so it was important that the Government understood the depth of public feeling and not just that of medical experts.
The Government has announced that there will be a consultation around the actual unit price followed by implementation as soon as possible. While initial signs are that the Government plans a 40p unit price, Teresa May has suggested that a higher price may be needed. Previous research by the University of Sheffield has suggested that while 40p would be a good measure, there are strong arguments for a unit price of 45-50p.The key nationally-applicable research was conducted in 2008/9, though there have been recent studies applicable to Scotland. The Churches await this new research, but will continue to campaign for the appropriate unit price for alcohol.

However once a sensible pricing policy has been implemented, the wider question of the UK's drinking culture remains. It is time for a national debate on the marketing of alcohol and the social role people want to give it. The Churches have much to add: for the Alcohol Strategy to succeed, the UK needs to move towards a new consensus: neither prohibitionist or relying on regulation, nor in denial about the social and economic drivers of problem drinking. The idea that communities have a say in the availability, use and marketing of alcohol is a test point for the Government's commitment to localism.