CAIS chief executive Clive Wolfendale has welcomed the minimum unit pricing measures announced by the Welsh Government as part of the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill.
Mr Wolfendale said the move marked an "important day for Wales" and stressed that it would save lives.
THE MINIMUM UNIT PRICING measures outlined by the Welsh Government show that Wales is finally getting serious about our national problem with excessive alcohol consumption. They are also a major poke in the eye for the big drinks industry and their multi-million pound lobbyists and lawyers.
And not before time. I’ve been calling for minimum unit pricing for a number of years – because I’ve seen the all-too-familiar impact of Wales’ problem with alcohol throughout a long career in the police and as chief executive of CAIS.
Let’s face facts – the true cost of cheap booze is measured in the many hundreds of lives lost unnecessarily through alcohol-related liver disease, violence and misadventure in Wales each and every year, and in many more blighted by persistent health issues, dependency and family breakdown.
Some 50,000 people are admitted to hospital each year as a result of excess drinking, costing health services in Wales around £120m. Our criminal justice system is packed with people whose crimes have been exacerbated by alcohol consumption – and doubtless a high percentage of these offences would not have occurred at all had the perpetrators not been intoxicated.
The evidence is clear: increasing the cost of alcohol reduces the amount of harm caused by alcohol. Rigorous academic studies from across the world have consistently shown that increasing the price of alcohol significantly reduces demand, and particularly so amongst the younger, binge and harmful drinkers who tend to choose the cheapest options.
Research commissioned by the Welsh Government shows that raising the price of alcoholic drinks to a minimum of 50 pence per unit will save health boards, police forces and the wider economy almost £900 million, and reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths by 1,000 over the next two decades.
Under the proposal, those of us who enjoy the occasional glass within safe limits are unlikely to see a difference in the price we pay for a pint at our local, or for a mid-priced bottle at the off licence. But this measure will increase the cost of the most harmful, cheapest drinks – like white ciders and white-label spirits – and halt the irresponsible, loss-leading promotions supermarkets use to tempt shoppers through their doors.
It’s no surprise that bodies like the Welsh Retail Consortium and the British Beer and Pub Association are opposing this move, or that groups like the Scotch Whisky Association have stymied similar plans in Scotland.
We should remember that all these organisations primarily represent the dominant manufacturers and sellers – and therefore have revenues, profits and shareholders as their central concern.
Look instead at the evidence of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton, and others working in this field. Both Dr Atherton and bodies like Alcohol Concern Cymru argue that as alcohol has become more affordable, consumption has increased – with predictable and sometimes devastating results.
The Scottish Government is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling over its plan to introduce minimum unit pricing, following objections brought by the the whisky industry. Forward-thinking politicians there passed a new law five years ago, but have since been frustrated by legal process.
Bringing forward the proposal in the face of such uncertainty shows the Welsh Government is confident about its ability to effect change, and to do the right thing for the health and wellbeing of the people to Wales.
It is admirable that our nation is at long last seeking to take a lead on such an important issue. Now our legislators must have the courage of their convictions in the face of the naysayers and vested interests.
Of course, this proposal is just one step on a journey to a healthier Wales. Other elements are required as part of an effective strategy to tackle problem drinking; better access to appropriate treatments, better education, and better prospects for our communities will also be vital.
And minimum unit pricing alone is not likely to help already entrenched alcoholics, many of whom would gladly sell their grandmother’s wedding ring to satisfy what has become a harrowing chemical compulsion.
However, this measure is unquestionably a major step in the right direction as we look to change the drinking culture in Wales, and to help many thousands of people in future generations live longer, happier and better lives.