Debating the cost of alcohol to society

“Society is paying the costs – alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society £21 billion annually.”

So said David Cameron, launching the UK government’s alcohol strategy in 2012.

The prime minister was echoing the widely held view that alcohol is a financial burden on taxpayers. The British Medical Association has put the costs of alcohol harm in Northern Ireland and Wales at £680m and £1bn respectively, while the Scottish Government believes the annual cost of excessive alcohol consumption to be £3.6bn (equivalent to £900 for every adult in Scotland).

An alternative view

But now the popular view of alcohol as a drain on taxpayers has been challenged. A new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) claims that the net cost of alcohol to the state is minus £6.5 billion.

The report found that the direct costs of alcohol use to the government in England – including NHS, police, criminal justice and welfare costs – amount to just under £4 billion each year, whilst revenues from alcohol taxes amount to over £10 billion. And it claims that even if the government halved all forms of alcohol duty, it would still receive more money in tax than it spends dealing with alcohol-related problems.

Commenting on the findings, the report’s author, Christopher Snowden said it was time to stop regarding drinkers as a burden on taxpayers:

“Forty per cent of the EU’s entire alcohol tax bill is paid by drinkers in Britain and, as this new research shows, teetotallers in England are being subsidised by drinkers to the tune of at least six and a half billion pounds a year.”

The report received a hostile reception from Alcohol Concern. Deputy chief executive Emily Robinson told the Daily Telegraph:

“Non-drinkers suffer the consequences of alcohol related problems every day; whether that’s from drink driving accidents, being the victim of crime or anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, waiting in Accident and Emergency departments for their turn, even through to the costs of street cleaning town centres after a Friday night.

She went on to argue that policies, such as minimum unit pricing (MUP), were needed to tackle the harm caused by alcohol.

A setback for minimum unit pricing?

The IEA report appeared on the same day that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general advised that the Scottish Government’s policy on MUP breached EU competition and free trade laws.

The proposal to introduce minimum retail pricing for alcohol appeared in the Scottish Government’s 2009 alcohol framework, and in 2012 the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2 paved the way for the introduction of a minimum price of 50p per unit. The policy was challenged by the drinks industry, which believes that there are more effective ways of tackling harmful drinking.

While the advocate general’s advice may influence the ECJ’s final decision, The Scottish Government is standing by its policy. “While we must await the final outcome of this legal process,” said Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, “the Scottish Government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.”

The devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland have set out plans to introduce their own MUP legislation. In England, the 2012 alcohol strategy included a commitment to introduce an MUP for alcohol. However, in 2013 the coalition government decided not to proceed with this, and instead to impose a ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price.

Last year, a report from Sheffield University suggested that below cost price policy would have small effects on consumption and health harm, while an MUP set at  a level between 40p and 50p per unit, was estimated to have an approximately 40-50 times greater effect. The research appears to support evidence from Canada, the first country in the world to introduce MUP, indicating that MUP could bring significant health benefits.

With the IEA report introducing a provocative new perspective, and the final judgement on MUP awaited, it’s unlikely that ‘last orders’ will be called any time soon in the debate on alcohol’s impact on society.


 

Enjoyed this article? Read our recent blog posts on the night-time economy and on ten years of the Licensing Act.

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Further reading*

Alcohol pricing and purchasing among heavy drinkers in Edinburgh and Glasgow: current trends and implications for pricing policies

Understanding the alcohol harm paradox in order to focus the development of interventions

Understanding the development of Minimum Unit Pricing of alcohol in Scotland: a qualitative study of the policy process

Alcohol’s harm to others

The cost of binge drinking in the UK

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

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