Minimum unit pricing and strength-based taxation have larger impacts on health inequalities than increasing current alcohol taxes

  • First of a kind study shows that taxing alcohol by strength or minimum unit pricing has most significant impact on health inequalities
  • Current system of taxing by volume – not strength – is less effective on health
  • Harmful alcohol consumption accounts for an estimated 2.7 million deaths globally

Introducing minimum unit pricing or alcohol-content-taxation would reduce inequalities in health more than increasing alcohol duty under the current tax system or increasing VAT on alcohol, a new report has shown.

Research from the University of Sheffield’s Alcohol Research Group (SARG) compared four policy strategies for regulating alcohol prices to estimate how changes in alcohol price would affect individual levels of alcohol consumption and the subsequent impact on illness and deaths associated with 43 alcohol-attributable conditions in England.

SupermarketThe study, which is the first of its kind, showed that strategies which strongly link alcohol content with the price of drinks were more suited to tackling health inequalities compared to the current duty system where wine and cider are taxed by total beverage volume regardless of strength, and duty rates per unit of alcohol vary widely between different types of drink.

There are substantial health inequalities in England, with people in the lowest socioeconomic group dying on average six years earlier than those in the highest. Reducing inequalities in health is a key priority across the globe and tackling alcohol-related harm plays a major role in reducing the gap.

The research, published today (23 February 2016) in the leading medical journal PLOS Medicine, revealed a tax based on alcohol strength and minimum unit pricing would both have large impacts on harmful drinking across all socioeconomic groups, whilst having minimal effects on those drinking in moderation.

The four pricing strategies were chosen at a level estimated to prevent exactly the same number of alcohol-related deaths in the population so that the researchers could compare effects in different groups of the population. The strategies were: 1) a 13.4 per cent increase in duty for all products under the current UK system; 2) a four per cent tax based on product price; 3) a strength-based tax of 22p per UK alcohol unit; and 4) minimum price of 50p per unit, below which alcohol cannot be sold.

Professor Petra Meier, Director of SARG at the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), said: “Alcohol is now 54 per cent more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980 and harmful alcohol consumption is a major public health issue accounting for an estimated 2.7 million deaths globally.

“Our findings suggest that minimum unit pricing and taxing alcohol by strength are a well-targeted interventions which would lead to greater reductions in health inequalities compared to the current UK duty system or taxes levied on sales price - a tax system prevalent in many developing countries.

“Our results also suggest that a substantial 13.4 per cent increase in current duty would be required to achieve the same overall harm reductions as a 50p minimum unit price.”

She added: “EU countries have limited options however, as EU law prohibits taxation by strength for wine and cider. The implementation of minimum unit pricing in Scotland is still held up in a court case brought against the Scottish Government by the alcohol industry, where the Government needs to demonstrate that minimum unit pricing would have important public health benefits that cannot be achieved as effectively through existing taxation powers.

“Similar plans in Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are resting on the outcome of this court case. Although set in England, our study makes a major contribution to the evidence in this respect.”

Dr John Holmes, Senior Research Fellow at the SARG, said: “Alcohol taxes are the most common intervention internationally, although minimum unit pricing has recently started to attract much international interest. Until now there was little evidence to support policy makers wishing to compare the health impacts of different taxation.

“Minimum unit pricing and strength-based taxation are better-targeted than the current UK tax system for reducing alcohol-related harm as they have larger effects on heavy drinkers and smaller effects on moderate drinkers..”

Additional Information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

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PLOS Medicine

PLOS Medicine is the leading Open Access medical journal, providing an influential venue for outstanding research and commentary on the major challenges to human health worldwide. We specifically seek to publish articles relevant to clinicians and policymakers across a range of settings that adhere to the highest standards of methodology, ethics, and reporting and address the major biological, environmental, social, and political determinants of health.

Contact

For further information please contact:

Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859
a.l.pullan@sheffield.ac.uk