Food and diet

Alcohol price Q&A

A proposal for a minimum price for alcohol has been made by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO). Newspapers have reported that Sir Liam Donaldson, the CMO for England, has recommended that there should be a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol in England.

Many newspapers reported that the proposal has been met with a “lukewarm response” by the government (BBC News) and that the prime minister has rejected the plan (The Times) .

What did the CMO recommend?

The CMO recommended in his annual report that the government should introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol as an immediate priority. He suggests that consideration should be given to setting this minimum price at 50p per unit.

A minimum of 50p per unit would mean that:

  • A 750ml bottle of wine (12% alcohol by volume) could not be sold for less than £4.50.
  • A 700ml bottle of whisky (40% alcohol by volume) could not be sold for less than £14.
  • Six 500ml cans of lager (4% alcohol by volume) could not be sold for less than £6.
  • A two-litre bottle of cider (5.5% alcohol by volume) could not be sold for less than £5.50.

Why did the CMO recommend this?

  • Drinking alcohol is a deeply ingrained part of our society. Each year, the average intake per adult is equivalent to 120 bottles of wine.
  • Since 1970, alcohol consumption has fallen in many European countries but has increased by 40% in England.

In addition to the health and wellbeing of the individual, the ‘second-hand’ effects include:

  • Harm to the unborn foetus (such as foetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related miscarriages).
  • Acts of drunken violence, vandalism, sexual assault and child abuse.
  • The health burden on both the NHS and friends and family who care for people who are damaged by alcohol.

The CMO says that research shows a clear relationship between price and alcohol consumption. The government-commissioned Independent Review of the Effects of Alcohol Pricing and Promotion by a team at Sheffield University found that increases in prices generally have a greater effect on heavy drinkers’ consumption than on moderate drinkers’ consumption. This is thought to be because people who drink more tend to choose cheaper drinks.

Isn’t there a similar proposal for Scotland?

The Scottish government announced their own plans to introduce minimum pricing in Scotland two weeks ago. The proposal did not mention a specific price. It also proposed other measures, including regulations to end drinks promotions in shops.

The Scottish report also cites the Sheffield review as justification for the minimum price proposals.

What happens now?

The proposals are part of the CMO’s 2008 annual report, the opinions and conclusions of which are his own. As noted in the report, the essential function of the CMO is to provide “the highest quality advice, to both the government and the public, on how to improve the nation’s health”.
This advice will be considered by government.

Are there any indications of the government's response?

The newspapers have said that the government is concerned that the proposal would mean the majority of people who drink sensibly will be penalised by the actions of a few. The prime minister has stated: 

“As we crack down on binge and underage drinking, it’s also right that we take action that is properly targeted and effective. And we do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority.”

What about Scotland?

The Scottish proposals for a minimum price per unit of alcohol could come into effect by the end of the year. How this legislation affects Scotland could guide English policy.

NHS Attribution