Minimum drink price would save 70 lives in first year, study shows

A MINIMUM price for alcohol of 40p per unit would eventually save hundreds of lives a year, a Scottish Government commissioned study will reveal this week.

The price floor would increase the cost of cheap beer, cider and vodka, prompting heavy drinkers to cut back on their alcohol intake, the researchers claim.

The study, conducted by Sheffield University, estimates that 70 fewer people would die in the first year of the policy, and 370 fewer would die after about ten years.

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In 2008, 1,411 people died from alcohol-related illnesses in Scotland, more than double the figure from 30 years earlier. The study also estimates that a minimum alcohol price would lead to 30,000 fewer absence days from work every year.

It will now be used by SNP ministers as evidence that a minimum price should be set on alcohol. However, the drinks industry disputed the claims last night, pointing out that a 40p minimum price would not affect many strong drinks, which are associated with heavy drinking in Scotland.

Drinks that would rise markedly in price, however, include supermarket brand cider, and cheap spirits. A bottle of vodka - which contains 26 units of alcohol but can now be bought for less than 7 - would retail at a minimum of 10.40.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said last night: "It's now widely recognised that excessive alcohol consumption across society, fanned by rock-bottom pricing, is one of the biggest threats to Scottish public health. We are already using all the powers at our disposal to tackle problem drinking."

Chief medical officer Harry Burns added: "I've got to admit that initially I was sceptical about minimum pricing but when you look at the facts, it becomes a no-brainer."

The report is also expected to confirm that the greatest impact of the policy will be on heavy drinkers, who tend to choose cheap, higher-strength products such as white cider and own label spirits.

Independent experts on alcohol said last night that while they welcomed the proposals for a minimum price, it should not be seen as a panacea.

Ken Barrie, senior lecturer in alcohol and drug studies at the University of the West of Scotland said: "

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I welcome the idea of a minimum price but I am also aware of the limitations of what it may do and what it might not do.

"If we have major economic changes where more people become unemployed we may also find that that is a contributory factor in reducing alcohol consumption. It would be very difficult to say that alcohol related deaths have reduced by 5 or 10 or 20 per cent."

Barrie also pointed out that a minimum price would be a "regressive tax", meaning that it would hit the poorest in society the most.

A spokesman for the Scottish Retail Consortium said last night that they would continue their opposition to the plans.

"We still haven't seen any evidence to show that there is a link between price and consumption. The UK has some of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe, which suggests that the alcohol problem here isn't about tax but about culture. And it is through cultural changes that the alcohol problem needs to be addressed, not through the blunt instrument of taxation."

He added: "An alcoholic will always find the money to buy alcohol if that is his or her addiction."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Robert Brown added: "Minimum pricing won't tackle the cycle of deprivation that often drives people to drinking cheap, high strength alcohol in the first place."