Binge-drinking is in decline – yet alcohol consumption remains a thorny issue for policy-makers.
ONS data has shown that heavy drinking has fallen since 2005. This trend is particularly pronounced among young people aged 16-24, among whom binge-drinking has fallen by a third. The alcohol industry points to this as evidence of the success of the Responsibility Deal, a voluntary sector agreement which includes a commitment to remove a billion units from the market.
Yet more often reported is the contribution of alcohol misuse to the strain felt in A&E departments across the country. More than one million hospital admissions in England are alcohol related. It accounts for 20% of all A&E visits and a staggering 80% of A&E attendances at peak times on Friday and Saturday nights. The estimated cost of this to the NHS in England alone is approximately £3.5bn a year. These figures, coupled with the ever-increasing pressure on public finances, means that the pricing of alcohol will inevitably be a contentious issue post-election – especially as Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has stated that he would like to see the next government take rapid action to reform the pricing of alcohol.
The General Election is shaping up to be the most uncertain in living memory and a hung parliament looks inevitable. The alcohol industry will be assessing the implications of the various possible scenarios on future policy given the pressure to regulate alcohol pricing.
A Conservative-led government is likely to be the most attractive proposition for the industry. The Coalition cut taxes on beer, cider and spirits. They also prioritised voluntary agreements over direct government intervention to address problem drinking. Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) was considered but ditched in the face of public hostility. While MUP may not be completely off the table for ever, it does not feature in the Conservative Manifesto. Moreover, ComRes polling highlights that there is relatively little support for MUP (29%), increasing alcohol duty (27%), or other statutory interventions among Tory MPs.
A Labour-led government on the other hand, especially with active SNP support, is likely to take a more interventionist approach. Their Manifesto promises that they will take targeted action on high strength, low cost alcohol products that fuel problem drinking. Such an approach could ultimately see increases in alcohol duty and the possibility of MUP proposals being dusted off. Indeed, our research has found that a majority of Labour MPs support the introduction of MUP (62%), and approaching half support an increase in alcohol duty (46%).
The potential for local authorities to implement their own strategies also needs to be factored into the equation. Around three-quarters of Labour MPs support local authorities having the power to limit the number of local shops that can sell alcohol (77%), and ComRes research reveals support for regulation among Councillors representing urban areas.
A majority of Councillors would throw their weight behind limiting the number of local shops that can sell alcohol (69%) and introducing MUP (66%). There is also majority support for making the granting of alcohol licenses dependent on MUP (63%) and prohibiting the sale of high strength lagers and ciders (58%). The alcohol industry will need to be conscious of these trends if localism and further regional devolution gather momentum in the next Parliament.
So what next? Given the state of public finances, reversing the cuts made to alcohol duty or even introducing the less revenue-rich MUP may be viewed by the incoming government as a potential source of revenue to fund their enthusiastically generous manifesto pledges.
However, policy-makers are aware that the public are instinctively resistant to Government becoming more involved in their daily lives, particularly when this will hit household budgets. Also, price is a relatively crude tool as it will affect people who drink in moderation as well as problem drinkers. And then there is the problem of MPs voting to penalise ‘ordinary hard-working people’ while enjoying a tipple in their own subsidised Westminster drinking holes. Introducing such a policy could be a vote loser, but the public health lobby has hopes that a new government will be prepared to bite the bullet.
Whatever their financial constraints, the party or parties forming the next government after May 8th could find that even with the best will in the world, the politics of minority administration will make it impossible to intervene very much. Perhaps it is just as well binge drinking is on the wane.