Minimum alcohol pricing: will it work?

Bottles of alcohol spirits on shelves
Photo credit: Alejandro Bustamante Campillo

Drinkers with serious alcohol problems tend to buy cheaper products, according to the research, The price of a drink: levels of consumption and price paid per unit of alcohol by Edinburgh’s ill drinkers with a comparison to wider alcohol sales in Scotland (.pdf) carried out at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. But it is not clear whether a minimum price would reduce alcohol problems in the longer term or whether it might lead to problem drinkers stealing alcohol.

Other studies have suggested a ten per cent rise in the price of alcohol might lead to a five per cent cut in consumption, though the percentage reduction might be less for the heaviest drinkers.

The Edinburgh study set out to discover whether harmful drinkers were already purchasing alcohol at the lower end of the price range – if they were, they would be more likely to be affected by a minimum price.

The researchers looked at the drinking habits of 377 patients with serious alcohol problems who were being treated at two hospitals in Edinburgh – two thirds of them as in-patients and a third as out-patients.

A bottle a day

On average these heavy drinkers consumed 198 units of alcohol per week, or the equivalent of a little more than a bottle of spirits per day. They spent an average of 43 pence per unit, which was well below the 71-pence per unit average price of alcohol in Scotland at the time.

The lowest amount spent per unit was just nine pence, with the cheapest drinks bought at off-licences tending to be white cider or vodka.

The researchers found the drinkers who drank most were also likely to purchase the cheapest alcohol. Among those who drank at least 200 units per week, the average spend per unit was 30 pence.

Female patients paid a lower average unit price than males and purchased more of their alcohol from off-licences. Because minimum pricing would mainly affect off-sales, it might alleviate the growing prevalence of alcohol problems among women, the research suggested.

But those who were buying cheap drink were not necessarily the poorest. An analysis based on the deprivation status of the areas where participants lived showed that those living in mid-range housing were paying the most for alcohol.

Roughly two thirds of the sample were men, and a third women, and the average age was 47. Many of the participants said their choice of alcohol was determined by price. Some respondents said they would habitually drink until their money ran out.

The key to the success of minimum alcohol pricing, the researchers said, was in the reduction of the number of people who were becoming problem drinkers as well as in reducing the intake of those whose drinking had already reached harmful levels. In such very heavy consumers even a small percentage drop in alcohol consumption would have a relatively large absolute effect, they concluded.

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