Set a minimum price for alcohol

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A letter to

The decision to proceed with a Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) policy for alcohol in Northern Ireland reflects the increasing conviction of policy makers of the effectiveness of price in the fight against alcohol harm.

The challenge to Scotland’s bid to introduce a MUP of 50p remains tied up in the European courts, but there is confidence that this challenge by the drinks industry will be overcome.

The consequences of alcohol harm in Ireland are catastrophic. The death rate from liver cirrhosis has doubled in both men and women in the last 20 years, reflecting the doubling of per capita intake of alcohol in the last 50 years.

MUP, which establishes a floor price below which alcohol cannot be sold, has proven to have had significant positive and rapid benefits on health and crime in Canada, where MUP has already been introduced. The Northern Irish Department of Health estimates that introduction of MUP there could save 63 lives a year; in the Republic the figure for lives saved would be much higher.

Those who argue against MUP suggest that moderate drinkers would be penalised. This is quite simply not the case. MUP will in fact have the greatest impact on harmful and hazardous drinkers. A recent UK study of patients with liver disease demonstrated that the impact of a minimum unit price of 50p/unit on spending on alcohol would be 200 times higher for patients with liver disease who were drinking at harmful levels than for low-risk drinkers.

If we take a MUP price of 60c in the Republic of Ireland, this would not change the price anyone pays for a drink in a pub or restaurant, as these, for the most part, already sell at well above that MUP. A bottle of wine costing €8 at present, or a 700ml bottle of spirits at €14 would still cost the same. What would change is the price of the cheapest and strongest wine, cider and beer, mainly or completely in the supermarket and off-license sector.

Prof Frank Murray, President and Chair of Alcohol Policy Group, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland