Europeans love to drink. From the “wine-dark sea” of Homer, to family gatherings at Christmas, to a glass of wine at lunch, alcohol is an integral part of European culture. But alcohol has a dark side and, despite frequent public health warnings, is not always “enjoyed in moderation”.

Booze can also be expensive (not just in terms of excise duty). One study, published in 2004 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimated that the total societal costs of alcohol abuse to national economies can run to several percentage points of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), ranging from 1.42% in France to 5-6% in Italy. This includes the cost of treatment, prevention, research, law enforcement and lost productivity (e.g. people pulling a sickie at work) plus some measure of the quality of life years lost.

That report is now over a decade old, but more recent reports, such as the British government’s 2012 alcohol strategy report, still put the economic impact at significant (though lower) levels. The UK report estimates the cost of alcohol abuse at roughly £21 billion per year – which is certainly a hefty chunk when you consider the total annual budget of the National Health Service (NHS) is £95.6 billion.

And this is only the economic cost. There is also an enormous human cost to alcohol abuse, which is difficult to estimate. In fact, we had a comment sent in by Marie-France arguing that alcohol is even worse than tobacco, and higher taxes on alcohol would be a very good thing.

To get a response, we put Marie-France’s comment to Paul Skehan, Director General at Spirits Europe, a European representative body for producers of alcoholic spirit drinks. How would he respond?

To get another perspective, we also spoke to Dr Nick Sheron, who is the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) representative to the EU Alcohol Forum. Did he think alcohol could be as bad, or even worse, than tobacco?

nick-sheronWell, in actual fact that is probably truer than most people realise. And the reason for that is this: alcohol tends to kill people at a young age, compared to other risk factors such as tobacco.

So, if you look at the harms that alcohol causes, they can basically be split into three categories. There are the harms associated with people being drunk and doing stupid things like falling in front of buses, driving cars into trees, getting into fights, killing other people or themselves. There are harms associated with the fact that alcohol is a drug of addiction and it induces addiction at a relatively early age – people often become addicted to alcohol in their 20s or 30s. And, finally, alcohol is directly toxic to a number of systems within the body, including the brain and the liver, and it causes about 10% of cancers in European men and 3% of cancers in European women.

And when you add all of those things together, one of the ways you can calculate this is something called “years of life lost” or “Disability-Adjusted Life Years” (DALY), which takes into account your age at death as well as disabilities, such as living with alcoholism. In the UK, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) publishes this data annually, and when you add up the years of life lost, then alcohol is responsible for more years of life lost than smoking, which is something that I think would probably shock a lot of people.

But wouldn’t raising alcohol tax just encourage a black market in untaxed alcohol to flourish? After all, US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s did little but profit gangsters and bootleggers (though that’s on the extreme end of the spectrum). At some point, would extra taxation be counter-productive?

The Scottish government has recently proposed an alternative measure. It has suggested bringing in minimum alcohol pricing, which it hopes would affect mostly heavy drinkers who purchase cheap alcohol in bulk. The hope is that those who enjoy “the odd glass of wine” would be unaffected by the new measures.

However, we had a comment from Tarquin wondering if policies such as minimum alcohol pricing are even possible according to EU rules. Certainly, the Scottish government’s plans have recently been referred to the European Court of Justice. What would Paul Skehan say?

Finally, how would Dr Nick Sheron respond to the same comment from Tarquin?

nick-sheronWell, the Scottish government have already introduced minimum unit price. The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament, and incidentally it was a manifesto commitment. So, in the UK there’s a tradition that opposition parties will not vote against manifesto commitments, because to do so would be seen to be anti-democratic. So, the bill was passed in Scotland and signed off by the Queen, it’s gone into legislation – but the legislation was then challenged in Scotland by the Scottish drinks industry, most notably by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association.

There have been two court hearings in Scotland, and the Scottish courts have tried very hard to chuck out this bill to start with, but there’s an automatic right of appeal in Scotland so it went to appeal, and the appeal court now referred it to the European Court of Justice. So, the ECJ is currently making a decision on that, which is going to boil down to whether the profits of the drinks industry hold more sway with the ECJ than public health, which is the justification for minimum unit pricing.

The key thing about minimum unit pricing is that it is exquisitely targeted to very heavy drinkers. I’m a liver doctor, and my patients drink on average the equivalent of five bottles of vodka per week, and as a result of that they drink the cheapest alcohol that it’s possible to find. Because minimum unit pricing is only targeted at cheap alcohol, it doesn’t affect the price of alcohol in pubs or bars at all, and because patients with severe alcohol-related problems are drinking a lot of cheap alcohol, then the end result is that, for example, a minimum unit price set at 50 pence in the UK would have a 200 times greater impact on harmful, dependent drinkers with liver cirrhosis than on moderate or low-risk drinkers.

Should there be minimum alcohol pricing in Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Ryan McGuire

86 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Nico Selleslags

    Willen jullie met jullie vragen mensen overtuigen van een verenigd Europa of juist niet? Debating Europe

  2. avatar
    Diogo Guerreiro [Portugal]

    Na minha humilde opinião, não há sentido nesta questão. Criar um preço mínimo sobre o álcool é uma questão de impostos. Aumentar ou diminuir os preços do álcool é uma questão de impostos. Bem, no âmbito dos impostos cada estado tem poder para regulá-los. Colocar alguns impostos sobre o álcool e aplicá-los a toda a Europa é perigoso. Basicamente, isto sugere que a União pode regular um poder que originalmente pertence aos Estados-membros. Eu vejo isso como uma invasão de competências. Por isso a minha resposta é não!

    In my humble opinion there is no sense in this question. Create a minimum price on alcohol is a matter of taxes. Increase or decrease prices in alcohol is a question of taxes. Well in taxes every single state have power to regulate them. Put some taxes on alcohol and apply this for all europe is dangerous. Basically this suggests that Union can regulate a power that originally belongs to members states. I see this like a invasion of competecies. For that my aswer is: no!

    • avatar
      Paul X

      It is not a Tax. The responsibility for making sure the minimum price is applied falls to the shop or supermarket that sells it

      So rather than being a tax that could be invested into the health service to combat the effects of alcohol all it does is increase the supermarkets profit. Though I assume the net effect will just be a reduction in sales of cheap booze so they wont really gain much in the long run

  3. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    You control behaviour through education.
    This pricing business is pathetic. You will just create an underground industry with price controls. Haven’t we learned anything from previous experiences?

    • avatar
      Paul X

      Basically it is a minimum price a shop must charge per unit of alcohol

      Those people who buy quality booze will most likely end up not paying a penny more because decent branded drinks will already have a sale price per unit higher than the minimum price

      Where as those who live on cheap bottles of very strong cider will have a shock when the price of a bottle doubles

  4. avatar
    Festina Lente

    No, it’s just the education from birth on which can help, but those who want ot drink they drink, they even go to places where you can buy cheap. Even the sigaret problem by high pricing has not been risolved : please let us LIVE. Those who want to drink, well, they do…ps: by the way why do you not control people driving with too many medicaments…..your approach is not …logical….at all.

  5. avatar
    Ed Cocks

    No, just a way to make the distilling industry more profitable. Tighten laws on drunken driving and other behaviors if you wish but let the market set prices.

  6. avatar
    Mathew Sandoval

    No, social engineering works best through education and family values. If alcohol was free, what problems would exist? It is perfectly legal to make ones own wine and bier.

  7. avatar

    Absurd, higher taxes are a damn good reason for smugglers to take risks. Of course governments will invent new police departments “specialized” in catching traffickers (bootleggers) ripping twice the humble taxpayer. However, I don’t know what stops heavy drinkers to make their own booze.

  8. avatar
    Dimitris Stamiris

    alcohol and cigarettes must start from school talking to kids how dangerous is !!!!! Forget prices wen we talk about life’s !!!!!!!

  9. avatar
    dr V

    stricter regulation for alcohol legal regulation for cannabis

  10. avatar
    Gatis Gailitis

    Yes. It’s is very common in Scandinavia to price unhealthy items higher than unhealthy items. Bottle of Jack Daniels will be around 37 and a pack of smokes will be around 9. That to me seems like something we can introduce to tackle the drinking and tobacco smoking issues around Europe. It disgusts me that you can buy so much shit for so cheap.

  11. avatar
    Peter Castermans

    Offcourse not. That wil just make a luxeproduct from it. People must be made responsable users not poor users. And yes alcohol is common in Europe, but there is a difference between frequent use and alcoholic behavior. Studies even say that if you don’t drink too much it is even healthy.
    I’m from beer country Belgium and most people are responsible users, ok everybody had sometimes drunk too much, but that can happen. If not too often wich is for the majority of the people i know, than there is no problem.
    Seems some people want to punish all people for misbehaviour of a few.

  12. avatar
    David Petty

    Minimum pricing will solve nothing. The only people who will suffer will be children of alcoholics. Alcoholic parents will only spend more feeding the addiction, leaving less to spend on feeding and clothing the child. Moderate drinkers will budget better. The only beneficiary will be the state. Everyone is aware that the problem isn’t price its the strength, cut the strength if you want to do something about the problem.

  13. avatar
    Artur Pereira

    Stop all the cars and there will be no accidents. E.E.C. (there is no E.U.) means more obligations less rights.

  14. avatar
    Pier Dal Ri

    Just a reason to put new taxes, they do not care about us, they want money, shitty socialists!

  15. avatar
    Tony Kunnari

    Just reduce the amount of alcohol in comparison to the rest of the drink and the case is settled. Excessive drinking is a habit and pricing cannot affect it really. Whenever our bodies learn to want something, it is very difficult to make it forget. Mind can focus on many things and stumble many times, but the body does not know how to calculate money. It simply needs what it wants and preferrably the exact moment it gives the signal.

  16. avatar
    Alan Tennyson

    No. The children of problem drinkers will become poorer, while moderate drinkers will simply drink less.

  17. avatar
    Bogdan Maris

    I don’t believe pricing will have much effect
    People who want to drink will cut from other areas such as clothes, household products etc and pay more on alcohol
    But then again a better control in the under 18 department and tighter regulations will help

  18. avatar
    Ivan Drvarič

    How they could afford alcohol financially and as health issue. There are so many influential factors influenting healthy brain and make people and politicians and economy elite compromised about psychological health andbrationality on community life and community responsibility. So you are saying beside other hazard they still afford alcohol? No wonder Europe is in such challenged situation.

  19. avatar
    catherine benning

    Would it curb your Jean Claude Jincker? An alcoholic is the same as any other drug addict, they will spend their last penny on getting what they crave, even to the point of stealing for it. So, no, it won’t stop the heavy drinkers or as you politely word it, excessive drinking.

    It may stop the dinner wine brigade, but that’s it.

    • avatar

      I agree with this comment. Very well said.

  20. avatar
    Blanche Rose

    MUP is economically non sense. and will destroy job for nothing just NGO’s ideology Plus, it just increases the pressure on people. If I want to get drunk tonight, then what the point ? I mean what should be tackle is alcohlism, and help people to be responsible : drink= no driving, no binge drinking, respible serving etc. . I mean alcohol is not the issue, it’s just a factor, the real issue is poverty and lack of education.

  21. avatar
    Andreas Sanchéz

    NO!!! The more expensive and restricted a drug is, the more excessive people will consume it. Look at Britain: alcohol is expensive, pubs close at 11pm and they are binge drinking masters of Europe! Or look at Sweden: Alcohol is unaffordable, laws are strict, so people take the ship to international waters and drink their souls off!

    • avatar
      Paul X

      Lol, when were you last in Britain? Pubs can stay open as long as they like

      Binge drinking one of the issues that a minimum pricing may help. Currently drink in pubs is expensive where as supermarkets sell lots of dubious quality cheap strong alcohol. Hence, to save money, a lot of young people get tanked up on cheap supermarket booze before they go out so they have to buy less at the pub.
      Increase the price of the cheap supermarket booze and some of the incentive to do this will go, seems logical to me?

  22. avatar
    Jaume Roqueta

    you want to regulate whatever for the comon people but not-regulate anything about trading and bussiness.. it looks like anarchism for the rich , comunism for the poor… just the contrary I want!.

  23. avatar
    Toni Muñiz

    It should have a high tax. Alcohol is not a necessity, and its a problem for society. Although care must be taken as there are many businesses in alcohol. But hard liquors should be taxed higher than wines, for example.

  24. avatar
    Tarquin Farquhar

    Scotland tried to introduce minimum alcohol pricing but first Bulgaria [that world renowned wine producer] and later France complained that such a measure would be against EU competition laws.

    Clearly, the EU values business before lives – VERY disappointing.

    • avatar

      Well, I don’t necessarily agree with this, Tarquin. I like my glass of wine and I don’t think I should pay over the odds for it because some other people cannot control the amount of alcohol they consume. I think I should have access to better value alcohol on my Saturday night, otherwise, I would be getting punished for other people’s sins. There is the need for a cultural change perhaps. There was an attempt to promote café culture in the UK but, to my dismay, that materialised by extending pub opening hours…I have myself tried to get a glass of wine in a café only to be told that they don’t have the relevant licence and that I would have to order food as well…which I didn’t fancy because I wasn’t hungry and…with “café culture” only going on till 6 pm, because that is when cafes close, and your only option for socialising is the pub/club etc, if you are not hungry enough for the restaurant or only like to eat your own food, what are the priorities of the UK government as well and how honest is it about them?

  25. avatar
    Joel Dominic Rodrigues

    No. That is a slippery slope & as with the “war on drugs” a stupid idea. For proof that high alcohol taxation doesn’t work see the UK today. Also, let’s not forget all the failed attempts at “prohibition”.

  26. avatar
    Joel Dominic Rodrigues

    Binge drinking is a cultural issue, not one to be addressed through the stupid idea of more taxes. Alcoholism is an illness & also not one to be addressed through stupidity. Also, beer & wine are among the first & most wonderful things human beings ever invented.

  27. avatar

    No it would not reduce excessive drinking though I am in favour of minimum pricing as it taxes poor people .

  28. avatar
    David Petty

    No, alcoholics will just spend more. Leaving less money for essentials. Only the children will suffer.

    • avatar

      There are of course laws throughout Europe that punishes child neglect as indeed there are that would also see drunks arrested on the streets . All the reasons put forward by governments to introduce minimum pricing are to opt out of their responsibility for law and order . One such reason is that it would prevent some of the anti social behaviour on the streets ,my point being so would arresting them .

  29. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    we keep on trying to place controls on the consumer side but let the suppliers do all the marketing they can think of. then we let the media play with cute events such as binge drinking.

  30. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    let us put pressure on all sides of the equation! including schools, schools, dorms, etc…

  31. avatar

    If Europe raise the price of alkohol I think nothing will change of the alkohol consume from the people… they will get the money from everywhere and young people will buy together alkohol. So in my opinion even when they raise the price of alkohol the people will drink exersive.

  32. avatar
    Paul X

    People still do not seem to be grasping the concept of minimum pricing, it is not a tax and doesn’t directly go to government

    If you enjoy a bottle of decent wine, popular branded spirits or good beer, you will most likely see no increase in what you spend on drink at all, the price of quality alcohol will almost certainly already be above the minimum price threshold per unit

    It is targeted at the cheap spirit and strong cider brigade which is drunk by people who could not care a toss about the taste of what they drink as long as it gets them off their heads, they are the ones with a drink problem

  33. avatar
    Dimitris Stamiris

    Alcohol is big problem everywhere … I think it must have very high price in supermarkets and bars … Alcoholism is in very high level everywhere !

  34. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    Addiction is not solved with pricing. People will figure out how to beat the price barrier. The illicit drug industry is an example. How many new, synthetic drugs have been introduced to beat the high price of potent, desirable drugs? What about the illicit “booze bootleggers” that continuously make “moonshine” in their private distillers in the woods?
    One has to address the drivers of alcoholism. One of which is the fancy and cool image of bar hopping… the drinking binges at educational fraternities… the escapism offered people without hope in life by cheap bars… and there are more examples… Excessive alcohol consumption it is mostly a social issue! A peer pressure issue. An escape from reality issue. Not a taxation issue.

  35. avatar
    Lada Crnobori

    well if they dare try to, I’ll protest the hell out of it, and I know there’s lots of us.

  36. avatar
    Blanche Rose

    It will just increase the dark and grey market, and increase bad outcomes for the poorest when the wealthiest won’t see a change.

  37. avatar
    Harald Heidegger

    No European is forced to consume alcohol. As long as it stays that way, we do not need a minimum price. For me it would not matter: I don’t consume alcohol at all.

  38. avatar
    Kovács Andor

    Alcoholics need better treatment options,which cud be financed from raising the price of alcohol based on alc content per litre EU wide.Alcohol related illnessess cost a huge amount of money so we shud be determined to reduce that,even if its little by little,it needs to be done.And no banning alcohol altogether is not an option.

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