As an analysis of recent sales figures reveals a 15 per cent increase in cider sales in the North East over the past five years, Balance is calling for an end to tax breaks for a product that it describes as a favourite for our region’s homeless people and children who end up in specialist alcohol treatment services.
This comes at a time when, until recently, overall sales of alcohol per head have been falling, driven by alcohol duty increases brought about by the Alcohol Duty Escalator, a measure scrapped by the Chancellor in 2013.
According to Balance, the increases have been fuelled by low rates of alcohol duty on cider in particular and, along with other health campaigners in the region, the body is calling on George Osborne to address the issue by increasing duty on the strongest, cheapest alcohol in the upcoming Budget.
One of the most harmful drinks on the market, high-strength cider contributes to some of the most devastating harms of alcohol, including deaths, illnesses, risky and antisocial behaviour, and serious crime. Surveys show it is commonly consumed by children who require help for their drinking. Despite the harm it causes, high-strength ciders are available for the lowest price per unit of any other drink and sold for as little as £3 for a two-litre bottle.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, said: "On a daily basis, we’re seeing children and young people suffering from the effects of cheap, strong alcohol, available at pocket-money prices. It’s ruining lives and the Government needs to take action to protect our children.
"In each of the last two years, surveys carried out by Alcohol Concern and supported by Balance have shown that strong white cider and white spirits are in the top five drinks consumed by those children who end up needing help from treatment services.
"We know affordability is strongly linked to alcohol consumption. When duty was increased, alcohol sales were on the decline. Yet since cuts started in 2013 after extensive lobbying by the alcohol industry, the decline has stopped and alcohol sales may well now be on the increase. The only winner here is the alcohol industry. Even pubs don’t feel the benefit of duty cuts as sales data shows the vast majority of alcohol sold in our region comes from supermarkets and off licenses."
Melanie Soutar, manager at Matrix Young People’s Service, said: "We work with some of the most vulnerable children in our society and we have a duty to protect them. Cider is often the drink of choice for young people engaging with our services. We also know that drinking low-cost, high-volume alcohol makes these children hugely vulnerable to poor outcomes and those who exploit them.
"As well as poor physical and psychological outcomes, there is evidence of intrinsic links between cheap alcohol and child sexual exploitation. We’re calling on Government in the strongest possible terms to increase duty on cheap, high-strength cider and white spirits, products which make these children extremely vulnerable and open to the most serious forms of exploitation and harm."
Balance's key recommendations for this year's Budget are as follows:
Reinstate the alcohol duty escalator – to counter the trend of increased affordability that is associated with rising consumption and harm;
Increase duty on high-strength cider – targeting with higher tax rates which would substantially reduce the associated harms;
Ensure spirits are taxed at a higher rate than wine and beer – the same rate of duty for all beverage types would mean that distilled spirits could be sold much more cheaply than wine or beer – a public health concern as they are much stronger and carry a greater risk of health and social harm. White spirits as they are often known, such as vodka, tend to be consumed more by girls and young women, while two out of the top five drinks most consumed by young people are vodka brands;
Lobby for change at EU level so that drinks in all categories can be taxed according to their strength;
Implement a minimum unit price for all alcoholic products - this is needed to deal with the particular problem of the cheapest strongest drinks favoured by the heaviest drinkers and is compatible promoting alcohol duty structure for other products;