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Minimum Alcohol Prices and Debt
After six years of debate, Scotland will finally introduce a minimum pricing policy on alcoholic drinks from the 1st of May 2018. The new policy means that alcohol cannot be sold for less than 50 pence per unit, in a move hoped to tackle the country’s extensive drinking problems. Scotland will become the first country ever to introduce this pricing structure, with Wales expected to soon follow suit.
What is a Unit?
A unit is a measure of alcohol which makes it easier to keep track of how much we are consuming. A single (25ml) shot of most spirits contains one unit, whilst a standard pint of beer contains two. A normal pint of cider contains about three units, and a standard (125ml) glass of wine contains around one. Most alcopops contain about one and a half units per bottle. The recommended weekly limit for alcohol consumption is 14 units. You can work out how many units are in a drink by multiplying its %ABV by its volume, and dividing the result by 1,000.
Currently, one unit of alcohol can be had for as little as 18 pence. The main culprits for these low unit prices are super-strength ciders and own-brand spirits. When minimum unit pricing comes into effect, retailers will not be able to sell a 70cl bottle of Whisky for less than £14, a bottle of red wine for less than £4.69, or a litre of cider for less than £2.50.
The Cost of Alcohol
It may come as no surprise that the excessive consumption of alcohol causes all sorts of health and social problems. Research shows that this excessive consumption is linked to greater affordability and, according to the Scottish Health Service, alcoholic drinks are 60% more affordable today than they were in 1980 in the UK.
Alcohol Focus Scotland have also released some worrying statistics concerning alcohol consumption in the country:
- One in 15 deaths in Scotland were alcohol-related in 2015
- A quarter of people in Scotland regularly drink more than the recommended limit of 14 units per week
- Rates of alcohol-related hospitalisation are eight times higher in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived areas
- Alcohol-related problems disproportionately affect Scottish men; they are over twice as likely as women to die from alcohol-related causes, and drink on average twice as many units per week. 71% of alcohol-related hospitalisations are men.
- In 2012, the government estimated that alcohol abuse cost around £3.6 billion in total. This figure included health-care, as well as crime and reduced productivity
- 40% of prisoners in Scotland were drunk at the time of their offence
Clearly, high levels of alcohol consumption can be linked to all manner of issues – so how does the new minimum unit pricing hope to combat them? The premise is simple; that if alcohol is more costly, people will buy, hence drink, less of it. Shona Robinson, the Health Secretary, welcomes the changes, suggesting that “we have to tackle the scourge of cheap, high-strength drink that causes so much damage to so many families”, adding that the policy “will save thousands of lives”. Opposition parties have also suggested that the minimum price per unit should be even higher – set at 60 or 70 pence to account for inflation since the topic was first debated in 2012.
Not everyone is so optimistic about the policy, though – one source of vehement objection was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Although the Association could be accused of having interests in the issue beyond public health, they raised some valid points about the potential effectiveness of the minimum pricing strategy. Aidan O’Neill, speaking on behalf of the SWA, has described the policy as a “blunt instrument”, and suggests that a more effective approach would be to tackle the economic inequalities which are the underlying problem in so many cases of alcohol-related issues. He added that Buckfast, the tonic wine stereotypically associated with anti-social behaviour and excessive drinking in young people, will not be among the drinks affected. In fact, only half of alcoholic drinks will increase in price unless the minimum price per unit rises from 50 pence. The extra profits which are produced will currently go straight to retailers, although the government hopes to find a way to channel these proceeds back into the state.
Other critics of the policy express a similar anxiety that, since the minimum pricing will only affect cheap drinks, and not more expensive, luxury products, poorer people are effectively being blamed for alcohol-related problems, and face the associated stigma.
Alcohol and Debt
For someone struggling with alcohol addiction, it is uncertain whether the increased prices will make a significant difference to their condition. It is possible that a strong enough dependence on alcohol will result in people continuing to purchase it in spite of the price. This could lead to further financial problems, and possibly even problems with debt. Since alcohol is often used as a means of escape from distressing situations, financial problems incurred from alcohol abuse could drive someone to drink even more, hence deepen their money worries in a vicious cycle.
Only time will tell how effective this new policy will be in practice, but luckily help is out there for both alcohol dependence and problem debt. For advice about what you could do to cut back on alcohol consumption, Drink Aware have some excellent resources. For free, confidential advice about personal debt, you can speak to a friendly Carrington Dean advisor on 0141 326 0422.