BETWEEN 2011 and 2012 the North-East NHS spent more money per head than anywhere else in England tackling alcohol-related health problems. Professor Sheila Hollins, chairwoman of the British Medical Association’s board of science, argues that bringing in minimum unit pricing for alcoholic drinks would help to curb this growing problem.

In recent years the increasing affordability of alcohol has resulted in an increase in the levels of consumption of high strength beer and cider and has caused a worrying upsurge in alcohol-related damage to health. As well as damaging people’s health the cost to the taxpayer is substantial, with the NHS in spending an estimated £1.7bn on alcohol related illnesses.

All the more worrying is that research now shows that between 2011 and 2012 the NHS spent £265m in the North-East alone tackling alcohol-related harm. This is more than anywhere else in England per head of population, and is a perfect example of why a measure such as minimum unit pricing (MUP) should be introduced as soon as possible.

Alcohol is linked to over 60 different medical conditions and can be a significant cause of morbidity and premature death in the UK. Yet the government and alcohol industry both argue that minimum unit pricing should not be introduced as it would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.

Recent research from Sheffield University contradicts this argument. It shows that minimum pricing for alcohol would lead to 860 fewer deaths a year and 29,900 fewer hospital admissions among heavy-drinkers while having only a slight effect on moderate drinkers.

Combined with evidence from Canada, which has seen a significant reduction in alcohol-related harm and wholly alcohol related deaths since the introduction of minimum unit pricing, this reinforces our case for increasing the cost of alcohol.

In the long term, alcohol misuse is a contributory factor to conditions such as strokes and certain cancers, can increase the risk of physical problems such as liver damage and brain damage, and can lead to mental health problems.

So surely when there is good evidence that MUP will lead to reductions in deaths, illness, crime, and hospital admissions, the government should put people’s health first and increase the cost of alcohol?

The BMA believes that minimum pricing, set at no less than 50p per unit, is the most effective price-related option for reducing alcohol related harm, whilst preventing the deep discounting of alcohol, which often encourages heavy consumption.

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, a ten per cent increase in MUP reduced consumption of beer by 10.1 per cent, spirits by 5.9 per cent and wine by 4.6 per cent. One of the biggest impacts was on higher strength beer which fell by 22 per cent.

The case for MUP is also supported by the substantial evidence of how individuals respond to alcohol prices across the price spectrum.

The University of Sheffield has used this evidence to model the impact of an MUP set at 50p in England, which is expected to result in a 6.7 per cent reduction in average alcohol consumption per drinker, leading to the following benefits after ten years:

3,100 lives saved every year;

98,000 fewer hospital admissions per year;

43,000 fewer crimes per year.

The BMA also believes that excise duty on alcohol should be increased above the rate of inflation in order to reduce its affordability and contribute to the reduction of alcohol harm.

In the UK, the affordability of alcohol has increased by 70 per cent between 1980 and 2009. At the same time, excise duty levels have remained relatively static: between 1997 and 2007, duty on beer and wine was only adjusted for inflation, while duty on spirits did not increase at all.

For excise duty to be an effective alcohol control measure, duty increases will need to rise annually in relation to inflation and income.

Access to cheap alcohol has been found to correlate with more regular and increased total alcohol consumption. There is evidence that young people, binge drinkers and harmful drinkers prefer cheaper drinks, and that heavy drinkers and younger drinkers are known to be especially responsive to price.

Increasing the price of alcohol has also been found to reduce the rates of alcohol-related harms, including violence and crime, deaths from liver cirrhosis, other drug use, sexually transmitted infections and drink driving deaths.

No one is suggesting that minimum pricing or increasing excise duty alone will solve all alcohol misuse problems, but combined with work on education, marketing and the availability of alcohol, the BMA believes it plays an important role in reducing alcohol related harm.