Minimum pricing 'serious ammunition' in fight against alcohol-related harm

An adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Professor Jurgen Rehm has suggested that minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol should be implemented in all parts of the UK and extended across Europe. Photo credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire
An adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Professor Jurgen Rehm has suggested that minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol should be implemented in all parts of the UK and extended across Europe. Photo credit: Johnny Green/PA Wire

Minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol should be implemented in all parts of the UK and extended across Europe, a health expert has suggested.

Professor Jurgen Rehm, an adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO), suggested people should drink no more than one unit of alcohol per day.

He described the pricing policy as serious "ammunition" in the fight against alcohol-related harm and lamented the relatively low levels of use of pricing measures across Europe.

The call came amid predictions MUP in Scotland will have a "significant impact" on health outcomes north of the border.

The Scottish Government policy to set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol finally came into force in May after years of delays due to a legal challenge.

It was estimated the move could save around 392 lives in the first five years of its implementation in Scotland, where on average there were 22 alcohol-specific deaths every week and 697 hospital admissions.

Figures presented at a joint meeting on alcohol and health in Edinburgh, led by the WHO and the Alcohol Policy Network in Europe, show the continent continues to have the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world.

Every day, around 800 people in the EU, Norway and Switzerland die from alcohol-attributable causes and there have been "no significant changes" in levels of alcohol consumption since 2010.

Prof Rehm, a senior director at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, said a drop in alcohol-related deaths in Europe from 301,000 in 2010 to 291,000 in 2016 cannot be described as a big success.

He also pointed to "huge problems" with drinking among young people in the in Europe - particularly the widespread prevalence of binge-drinking.

"The big ammunition is using price policy, like taxation and things like that," he said.

Asked about the likely impact of MUP in Scotland, he told reporters: "Very clearly minimum unit pricing is going to have a significant impact."

He pointed to the "pretty great success" of similar pricing restrictions in countries such as Russia, saying it reduces consumption among binge drinkers and those with a dependency on alcohol.

Drink-related accidents, injuries, violence and public disorder will also go down with increases of minimum pricing, he said.

Asked whether he would like to see every country in Europe introduce that policy, he said: "Obviously from a public health perspective, yes, we would like not only minimum pricing policies, we would like minimum pricing policies which are relatively high ...

"Price in Europe has been the least used policy measure of all the policy measures."

Echoing that sentiment for the rest of the UK, he pointed to the country's "unique picture" when it comes to alcohol, including problems with binge drinking and higher levels of drinking among women.

"What should play a role here would be minimum pricing in all parts of the UK," he argued.

Dr Joao Breda, head of the WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, said MUP is a policy that "protects the vulnerable".

"Issues like using price, they are very strong and very important ammunition that should be considered by all countries and it's one of the measures that countries use less," he said.

Prof Rehm suggested people should consume no more than one unit of alcohol per day as he pointed to figures showing 29% of all alcohol-attributable deaths in the EU are from cancers.

He hit out at past government guidelines that suggested there could be a level of "safe" drinking.

"There is no safe drinking," he insisted.

"Low-risk (drinking) in the UK would be one drink a day."

Prof Rehm suggested helpful measures could include changing the serving sizes of alcohol and decreasing the alcohol content of drinks, saying tests have shown people cannot tell the difference between a beer with 5% alcohol and one of 3.5%.

Responding to the comments, Dr Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) said: "SHAAP strongly support the UK CMOs' guidance which is no more than 14 units per week, before health is likely to be harmed.

"However, it is true to say that no level of alcohol is risk free, especially in relation to cancer risks."

A spokesman for the Alcohol Information Partnership, a group funded by eight alcoholic beverage producers that aims to promote balanced debate about drinking, said: "The UK has one of the lowest recommended levels of alcohol consumption at 14 units a week.

"That reduction was made relatively recently so it would be surprising and potentially confusing if the guidelines were to be changed again.

"Most people in the UK drink moderately - in fact, recent statistics show a decline in binge drinking, particularly among young people.

"Where there are problems with harmful drinking, we think targeted interventions are often much more effective than blanket measures."