The quest for a reliable alcohol pricing model
In the time it will have taken for the European Courts to rule on the legality of fixing a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol, more than 2,000 people will have died prematurely from drink-related health problems in Britain.
This is the stark conclusion drawn by researchers at Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), whose economic model is at the very heart of what will be a landmark European ruling on one of the major public health issues of our time.
Legislation for MUP was passed by the Scottish Government in 2012, but a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association led to the new law being brought before the European Courts of Justice to see whether it was in breach of free market rules.
"If our research helps to show this policy is compliant with EU law, it could open the floodgates for any other country that wants to introduce a similar policy to do so," says social policy expert Dr John Holmes, a member of the ScHARR team.
Our model is absolutely central to the case, as it clearly demonstrates the potential public health benefits that come from introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol.
Dr JOhn Holmes
Building the model
Initial work on the model began seven years ago when the Department of Health asked ScHARR for a rigorous assessment of how price increases might affect alcohol consumption. "That identified a clear gap in the research, and the quest for a robust and reliable model was on," said Dr Holmes.
With over one million pounds of funding from, among others, the Department of Health, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the Scottish Government, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), ScHARR has created a diverse, multidisciplinary team that is setting the pace on research into alcohol harm reduction policy.
"We are headed up by professors with backgrounds in mathematics and psychology," says Dr Holmes, of a team that includes systems engineers, social policy wonks, economists and physicists. "This means we have people with a strong social science background – who understand the way policy is made and the impact it could have on people – working alongside mathematicians and statisticians to develop sophisticated predictive models. "
By building a close working relationship with civil servants and health professionals at the highest level, the team has ensured that the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model has real impact. “By collaborating with policy makers from a very early stage we have been able to focus our research in the areas that are most relevant to them."
Investment in alcohol support centres
ScHARR is also working with the Department of Health to determine how much investment would be needed to bring the patchy nationwide network of specialist alcohol treatment centres around the country up to an acceptable level of provision.
"These centres are vital to reducing alcohol-related harm, but have been seen as something of a Cinderella service," says Dr Holmes. "The findings from our research will be published in the new year and are likely to have a significant impact."
Shaping future policy
This latest research reflects the team’s growing expertise across the life cycle of alcohol misuse and harm, from the formation of central government policy and early prevention through to the treatment of chronic cases of severe dependency.
"Increasingly we are interested in a more holistic approach to modeling. The government is very interested in the way one public health policy impacts upon another," says Dr Holmes. As a member of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies – a network of 13 UK universities and a university in New Zealand – the Sheffield team is widening its research to explore how to more effectively change other health-related behaviours.
"Governments are looking at how best to tackle a broad range of problems that cause premature mortality and morbidity,” Dr Holmes said. “A very long-term goal would be to bring in things like obesity, exercise and diet into a big overarching vision of what public health policy should look like in the future. By working with other researchers here in the UK and around the world, Sheffield will be able to play an important part in shaping that vision for the future."