So a couple of months have passed since the General Election and the sense of shock about the outcomes has subsided somewhat. As the dust settles we need to consider how the Tory govt will address alcohol policy in the next five years. This is what the Institute of Alcohol Studies had to say:
Party quiet on public health measures including minimum pricing in manifesto
Alcohol policy faces an uncertain future under a newly elected Conservative government as it decides how it will run the country for the next five years.
Despite having a half a dozen mentions of the word “alcohol” itself, the Party’s manifesto for the 2015 UK General Election failed to detail specific evidence-based alcohol policies that it might implement, such as minimum unit pricing, to prevent alcohol related health and social harm, that currently costs the UK economy more than £21 billion each year. Instead the document focussed on its commitment to dealing with alcohol dependency and addiction as some of the root causes of the UK’s social and health problems, crime, and poverty. The sole targeted aim mentioned in the manifesto promised to “make sobriety orders available to all courts in England and Wales, enforced through new alcohol monitoring tags”. This is despite the fact that the pilot schemes are yet to be concluded.
According to Alcohol Policy UK, the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto adopts a more cautious tone towards alcohol policy compared with five years ago, when the Party set out plans to introduce the so called ‘below cost ban’, as well as pledges to ‘overhaul’ the licensing regime.
However the Morning Advertiser has already reported that the Tories have pledged licensing fees for the majority of pubs would be frozen and reviewing business rates to support small firms. This hints at a continuation of the business-friendly approach that the Party has taken since it formed a Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
In this time, the Conservative Party’s record on alcohol policy has left little for public health advocates to cheer. Its flagship initiative, the controversial Responsibility Deal (PHRD), encouraged partnership with the industry in formulating health policy. But many public health groups left the PHRD on the basis that business interests appeared to take priority over public health goals, with no evidence to suggest that industry pledges had led to reductions in rates of alcohol harm.
However, the former Coalition government continued to work with the alcohol industry on this self-regulatory initiative, while successive Public Health ministers have held meetings with industry representatives lobbying for fiscal policy changes that would undermine long-term alcohol policy on health, including the premature abolition of the alcohol duty escalator by Chancellor George Osborne in the 2014 Budget.
And although the government introduced a below-cost sales ban on alcohol in the previous Parliament, some health groups see that measure as inferior to the much-contested minimum unit pricing. In the 2012 Alcohol Strategy, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote: “When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub. So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price.”
However, following a lengthy consultation process, the Home Office decided not to introduce minimum unit pricing for the time being, reckoning that it “[did] not yet have enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms associated with problem drinking… without penalising people who drink responsibly.” This is despite commissioning a study from the University of Sheffield that showed how the policy would, at the mooted 45p per unit, be up to 50 times more effective than a below cost selling ban, and have a minimal impact on moderate drinkers.
Fast-forward to today, and the Conservative Party appears still reluctant to mention the minimum unit pricing to the UK electorate. Speculating on the possibilities for introducing the measure, Alcohol Policy UK’s article notes that: “with minimum pricing hardly a vote winner, early in the parliamentary term is when less popular policies may be more likely to be implemented.
“Scotland’s long running MUP battle is however still being dragged through the European courts, so any other Government is unlikely to attempt it before the verdict. Least of all the Tories one would assume, given their infamous minimum pricing u-turn.”
The Conservative Party as the leading partner of the Coalition government has garnered a reputation for prioritising business interests by lowering alcohol taxes while encouraging light-touch regulation for other policy areas such as advertising, which has posed serious problems for public health organisations at both national and local level.
Given this track record, it remains to be seen how a fully Conservative government will be able to reconcile its ambition to reduce rates of premature avoidable mortality, reverse the increasing burdens on the NHS and emergency services, and grow the economy from its current precarious position over the next five years, without pursuing head-on evidence-based alcohol policies such as minimum unit pricing.
Yes Scottish alcohol policy would have been boosted by the OECD report, which is good news ahead of EU Court ruling. As for the UK I won’t be holding my breath ……….