Research in British Columbia, Canada, found that as the minimum price of spirits and beer increased in the province, deaths linked to alcohol abuse dropped substantially.
The findings add further support to efforts by the Scottish Government to introduce a minimum price of 50p a unit for alcohol. The legislation has been delayed by legal challenges from the alcohol industry.
The latest research, published in the journal Addiction, looked at deaths caused by alcohol between 2002 and 2009 in British Columbia.
During this period, the minimum price for spirits increased from £16.54 per litre in 2004 to £19.58 in 2009, while “packaged” beers went up from £1.92 per litre in 2006 to £2.26 in 2008.
The researchers, from the University of Victoria, found that between 2002 and 2009 deaths described as “wholly alcohol attributable” fell by 32 per cent following a 10 per cent rise in average minimum prices.
This included deaths caused by poisonings, alcohol-related heart problems, chronic pancreatitis and foetal alcohol syndrome. The overall drop in deaths was more than was expected and disproportionate to the size of the price increase, the researchers said.
A minimum price increase of 1 per cent was linked to a drop in deaths of more than 3 per cent.
Dr Tim Stockwell, director of the university’s Centre for Addictions Research, said: “This study adds to the scientific evidence that, despite popular opinion to the contrary, even the heaviest drinkers reduce their consumption when minimum alcohol prices increase.”
The Scotch Whisky Association has challenged minimum pricing on legal grounds, delaying its implementation in Scotland. The European Commission prefers a wholesale increase in all alcohol prices through increasing taxes or targeted measures in specific regions where alcohol abuse is a problem.
But health experts continue to stress that a minimum-pricing system is necessary to tackle a high burden of death and ill health caused by alcohol misuse.
Dr John Holmes, from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, said: “This new research . . . suggests that this type of policy can have substantial impacts in reducing the number of premature deaths associated with alcohol.”
But the Wines and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) questioned the data used in the study. Chief executive Miles Beale said: “The report itself states that the number of ‘deaths were estimated’. This contrasts with the officials statistics which record alcohol-related deaths rising over the same period.”