Alcohol campaigners have called on the Chancellor to use his spring budget to increase duty on cheap, high strength alcohol.
The call came from the Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA), of which the British Liver Trust is a member. A recent AHA poll found that 66% of the public support tax increases on cheap, high strength cider.
At typically 7.5% ABV, 3-litre bottles of these ciders, which contain the same amount of alcohol as twenty two shots of vodka, can be bought in shops for as little as £3.49. This equates to just 16p per unit.
Due to their low price and high strength, street drinkers and children account for nearly all sales of these ciders. Many people in treatment for alcohol problems consume these products, having ‘traded down’ to cider as their drinking became heavier.
Strong cider attracts the lowest duty per unit of any alcohol product. The increase being proposed by the AHA would leave 80 per cent of cider sales unaffected, just targeting high-strength ciders.
Alongside duty increases, the AHA has also urged the Chancellor to implement minimum unit pricing for alcohol and to reinstate the alcohol duty escalator. Introduced in 2008, the duty escalator used to ensure that the duty on alcohol remained at 2% above inflation each year, and was a key measure in reducing the amount of harm done by alcohol. However, in 2013 the beer duty escalator was frozen and in 2014 the escalator was scrapped altogether.
Treasury figures show that tax cuts given to the alcohol industry over the past four budgets will cost the public purse £790 million in 2017/18 and a total of £2.9 billion over five years.
In December 2016, the Lancet published research showing that alcohol costs the UK economy between £27 and 52 billion a year, and that 167,000 years of working life are lost in England alone every year due to alcohol. In addition, one in five of all hospital admissions are alcohol related, while 70-80% of people attending A&E at peak times have been drinking.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the AHA, said:
“Alcohol is 60% more affordable than it was in the 1980s, but the low prices it is being sold at in the off trade hide a much bigger price we are all paying: in terms of damage to individuals’ health, hospital admissions, and pressure on our NHS and emergency services.
“This is pressure the health service cannot be expected to bear, given the well-known challenges hospitals and trusts are under at the moment.
“Taken together, increased duty on cider, minimum unit pricing and the reinstatement of the alcohol duty escalator would be good for the population’s health, and ease the burden on healthcare professionals.
“Importantly, these measures would also provide economic benefits. We know that if we reduced the burden on health and society of cheap alcohol, employers would benefit from a more productive workforce, as people live longer and healthier lives.”
Commenting on the specific problem of cheap, high strength cider, Dr Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems and a psychiatrist who worked in an NHS Alcohol Problems service in Tayside from 1990 until 2013 said:
“Colleagues and I became aware of the damage being done by high strength ciders in the mid-1990s, when 2 and 3-litre bottles of these ciders, known to drinkers as ‘submarines’ came on the market, and they began to replace the strong lagers which had dominated consumption up until then.
“The harmful impact of cheap, high strength ciders is now widely recognised by those working in health and care services and in the wider population. Some major drinks firms, such as Heineken, have withdrawn these products because of the harm they cause, but other producers have taken their place.
“Cider has received preferential treatment in the duty system, and this has allowed products to develop which cause a great deal of harm to the health of UK citizens. It is time to tackle the issue of cheap cider, and indeed all cheap alcohol, through targeted increases in tax and minimum unit pricing, to minimise the harm done in the future.”