A new law that will introduce a minimum price for the sale of alcohol in Wales has been unveiled by the Welsh Government.
The Public Health Minimum Price for Alcohol Wales Bill was introduced before the National Assembly for Wales yesterday by public health minister Rebecca Evans.
It addresses long standing health concerns around the effects of excessive drinking and the availability of cheap, strong alcohol.
It is estimated to lead to 50,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions a year, costing the Welsh NHS £120m annually. In 2015, there were 463 alcohol-related deaths in Wales.
In Scotland, their Minimum Pricing Act was passed in June 2012 but it has not been introduced as it has been tied up in a succession of court challenges amid claims it breaches European law.
The Bill will introduce a minimum price for alcohol supplied in Wales and to make it an offence for alcohol to be supplied below that price.
The level of the minimum unit price will be specified in regulations made by Welsh ministers.
In 2014, research on the impact of a 50p minimum unit price estimated there would be 53 fewer deaths and 1,400 fewer hospital admissions in Wales each year, saving the NHS more than £130 million over 20 years.
It was estimated workplace absences would fall by up to 10,000 days per year.
Over a 20-year period, a minimum unit price could contribute £882m to the Welsh economy in terms of the reduction in alcohol-related illness, crime and workplace absence.
The Bill proposes:
l A formula for calculating the applicable minimum price for alcohol using the percentage strength of the alcohol, its volume and the minimum unit price;
l Powers for Welsh ministers to make subordinate legislation to specify the minimum unit price;
l To establish a local authority-led enforcement regime with powers of entry, powers to bring prosecutions for offences and to issue fixed penalty notices.
Ms Evans said: “Alcohol-related harm is a significant public health problem in Wales.
“The 463 alcohol-attributable deaths in 2015 were all avoidable, and each of these deaths would have had a devastating effect on the person’s family and friends.
“Alcohol-related harm also has a big impact on public services such as the NHS.
“There is a very clear and direct link between levels of excessive drinking and the availability of cheap alcohol.
“So, we need to take decisive action now to address the affordability of alcohol, as part of wider efforts to tackle alcohol-related harm.
“The Bill I am unveiling today will tackle excessive alcohol consumption by making it an offence for retailers to sell strong alcohol at low prices.
“It will make an important contribution to improving health outcomes, by putting prevention and early intervention at the heart of our efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm. This will undoubtedly help save lives.”
Chief Medical Officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton said: “As alcohol has become more affordable, consumption has increased.
“As consumption increases, harm increases. All alcohol-attributable deaths are avoidable deaths, demonstrating the urgency for further preventative action.
“Increasing the price of alcohol through the introduction of a minimum unit price provides us with an effective and efficient way of reducing excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm.
“It will have a small impact on moderate drinkers. The most substantial effects will be experienced by harmful and hazardous drinkers, who are more likely to consume cheaper and higher strength alcohol products.”
A spokesman for CAIS, a registered charity with more than four decades of experience in working with people with alcohol problems throughout Wales, said the move marked an “important day for Wales” and stressed that it would save lives.
“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,” said CAIS chief executive Clive Wolfendale.
“The Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill being proposed by the Welsh Government today shows that Wales is finally getting serious about our national problem with excessive alcohol consumption.
“Evidence from a number of international academic studies is clear: increasing the cost of alcohol reduces the amount of harm caused by alcohol.
“This proposal won’t solve the problem on its own, and there’s much more to do.
“For instance, 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.
“But the Bill is unquestionably a
major positive 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.”
The plans were also backed by the British Medical Association’s Welsh branch.
BMA Cymru Wales Welsh council chairman Phil Banfield said: “We wholeheartedly welcome Welsh Government’s announcement to introduce legislation making it illegal for alcohol to be sold below a set price, as there is robust evidence that this will help reduce excessive alcohol consumption and misuse.
“BMA Cymru Wales has previously called for such measures; namely to implement a minimum price for alcohol, to ensure that alcohol cannot be sold below cost – in effect making it cheaper than water to purchase.
“While alcohol in moderation forms part of many people’s social behaviour, alcohol excess or addiction destroys lives. It is associated with crime, violence and anti-social behaviour, and can impact significantly on family and community life.
“We believe that such a move will save lives through a reduction in alcohol consumption and firmly upholds people’s health as a priority in Wales.”
However, the policy shift towards MUP in Wales comes just before the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) heads to the UK Supreme Court to challenge a 2016 Scottish Government decision to back MUP with a set price of 50p per unit of alcohol.
The SWA argues that implementing MUP is illegal when there are “less trade restrictive measures” available.
The organisation believes doing so could “severely damage” the Scotch whisky industry’s export markets, as well as the Scottish economy.
It is a view backed by the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2015 that Scotland’s plan to introduce a minimum unit price on alcohol breaches EU trade laws.
The UK’s Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) has also campaigned against MUP policy.
“Research shows that MUP will not stop the small minority of harmful drinkers, but instead tax the majority of consumers who enjoy alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle,” said Miles Beale, WSTA chief executive after the Scottish government’s 2016 ruling to back the policy.
“Trends in government data show clearly that the UK has been drinking ever more responsibly over the last 10 years – with consumption dropping by a fifth. This has been in large part achieved by partnership working between industry and government in a targeted manner.”