Pocket-money prices for alcohol continue, warns Balance

Colin Shevills of Balance.
Colin Shevills of Balance.
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Cheap, strong alcohol continues to be sold for pocket-money prices in the North East, according to a new survey.

One year ago, a survey of alcohol prices across the UK found an abundance of cheap drinks being sold in shops and supermarkets, with high-strength cider available at the lowest prices.

A follow-up review carried out this month in England, Scotland and Wales has found that these cheap prices remain largely unchanged, with products across the market still falling well below the 50p per unit mark recommended by health and alcohol bodies.

The price review was carried out in the North East by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, in partnership with the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), a group of medical royal colleges, alcohol organisations and health bodies.

In this year’s review, Balance found that cider continued to be sold at the lowest prices overall, with three-litre bottles of 7.5 per cent ABV cider (containing the equivalent of 22 shots of vodka) costing just £3.59 in 2017 – the equivalent of 16p per unit. This is 2p cheaper than cider found in the region last year at 18p per unit.

At that price, for the cost of a small latte in Starbucks, it is possible to buy more alcohol than the weekly recommended limit of alcohol.

In the North East, the cheapest wine surveyed this year was found to be even cheaper than in 2016, down 2p to 36p per unit. Vodka was also found to be available in the region for less than 40p per unit.

Cheap, high-strength alcohol is known to be predominantly drunk by the most vulnerable groups, including children and the homeless, and a minimum unit price for alcohol of 50p per unit was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, only to be held up by a legal challenge from sections of the alcohol industry. The Welsh government recently announced it will legislate for minimum unit pricing and the Northern Ireland Executive has also expressed its desire to implement the policy.

As cheap alcohol continues to be widely available, alcohol harm costs the North East more than £1billion every year, with more than 69,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions, including more than 1,050 hospital admissions per year for children with alcohol-specific conditions. It is responsible for an estimated 234,164 alcohol-related crimes, causes around 60 medical conditions and 45 per cent of people in the North East are drinking at risky levels.

With the mounting evidence, Balance is calling for the introduction of a minimum unit price here in the region too, as well as an increase in cider duty to make the most harmful alcohol less affordable.

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, said: “At a time when our frontline services are coping under enormous pressures and our communities are being hit by serious alcohol-related harms, it’s not right that alcohol is continuing to be sold at pocket money prices in our region.

“The evidence shows that it’s still possible to buy a three-litre bottle of high-strength white cider – the equivalent of 22 shots of vodka – for under £4. Because it’s so affordable and easily available, it is often the drink of choice for some of the most vulnerable members of society, including young people and dependent drinkers.

“Now is the time for action, putting people’s health and wellbeing above the commercial interests of the alcohol industry. We hope next week to see Scotland given the go-ahead to introduce minimum unit pricing and urgently need the UK Government to listen to the evidence and move swiftly to bring in this vital policy in England and Wales.

“Minimum unit price is a targeted, evidence-based measure only affecting the price of the cheapest alcohol, which causes some of the biggest harms. Evidence also shows it would barely affect moderate drinkers and leave pub prices untouched, but it would make our system much fairer and address some of the serious problems families, our frontline services and communities are facing.”