Introduction A reduction in the overall strength of alcohol products with stable alcohol volumes has the potential to considerably reduce alcohol harm. In 2011 a consortium of alcohol producers and retailers pledged to remove 1 billion units from the market by reducing product strength and on Dec 19th2014 the Health Improvement Analytical Team of the Department of Health reported1that 1,346 million units were removed from the market between 2011 and 2013. If true, this is a substantial improvement and will be welcomed by those concerned with alcohol harm reduction.
Method UK HMRC alcohol clearance (consumption) data2over the past 10 years was analysed.
Results The reduction in the number of units between 2011 and 2013 has mainly been achieved by reductions in the average strength of beer, which has reduced from between 4.53 and 4.40% in the years 2004 to 2011 to 4.14% in 2013. This accounted for 1.2 billion of the 1.3 billion total reduction. Since there were only minor reductions in the strength of wine and cider while spirit strength increased the evidence suggests that the reduction in beer strength is most likely to have been due to the simultaneous introduction of a 25% tax supplement on high strength and a 50% tax rebate on low strength beers rather than through the operation of the pledge.
Conclusion The UK Government should encourage and support the removal of alcohol units from the market by relating duty on all alcohol products more closely to their strength. In particular they should reduce the strength of beer attracting the high strength tax supplement from >7.5% to >5%, apply the high strength supplement to cider >5% and to wine >10%, and apply the tax rebate to cider <2.8%.
Alcohol harm currently costs the nation 21 billion pounds per year. A 2.5% reduction in alcohol consumption (1.25 billion units) would lead to a total cost reduction for health, crime and workplace absences of 5.1 billion pounds over 10 years.3Thus for a meaningful reduction in alcohol harm there needs to be a much greater unit reduction than currently pledged.
Disclosure of interest None Declared.
Responsibility Deal: Monitoring the number of units of alcohol sold. Second interim report, 2013 data:- https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/units-of-alcohol-sold
Making the case for a minimum unit price in England and Wales,Alcohol Health Alliance Briefing Paper 2014