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Balance responds to Government’s decision to freeze alcohol duty

Worrying rise in alcohol deaths in the North East in 2020

Balance responds to the Budget

Posted 03/03/21

Balance the North East Alcohol office today joined the Alcohol Health Alliance in describing the freeze in alcohol duty in Budget 2021 as a “huge blow to the health of the nation” and a measure which will make it harder for pubs to compete.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths caused by alcohol have hit a new record high in England and Wales and high-risk drinking increased by almost 90% between February and September last year. It was estimated there were 8m people drinking at higher risk levels , with alcohol treatment services struggling to cope .

A survey of shops and supermarkets found it is possible to drink the low-risk weekly guideline of 14 units for around £2.68 - the same price as a high street coffee . Deaths caused by alcohol in the North East increased by 15% in the first nine months of 2020, most of them from alcohol-related liver disease .

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: “Once again in this budget the profits of the alcohol industry has been put above our nation’s health.

“Alcohol places a huge burden on our NHS and public services and the impact of the last year – with millions more drinking at higher risk levels – can only make this worse. We are already seeing a record rise in deaths from alcohol in 2020.

“At the root of this problem is that strong alcohol is too cheap. This has a catastrophic impact on health, but also harms pubs, who cannot compete with the prices of alcohol sold on the shelves of supermarkets.

“We are calling on the Government for a new, evidence-based alcohol strategy for England, which focuses on harm prevention, and pricing policies that reduce the widespread availability of cheap alcohol, to bring an end to the rising burden of alcohol-harm and death.”

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and lead North East DPH for alcohol, said: “The last 12 months have taken a huge toll on our health and our nation’s finances and never has the need for action been more urgent.

“Whilst we acknowledge that the hospitality trade has suffered over the past year cheap supermarket prices have continued to cause harm and we know that harm is concentrated in our most disadvantaged communities.

“We all know about the alcohol paradox where those people in the most disadvantaged areas experience the greatest level of harm even when they drink less than their more affluent neighbourhoods.

“It is also worrying to see figures showing North East parents are twice as likely as non-parents to be drinking more often since before the pandemic, and more likely to be drinking more units on a typical drinking day. Alcohol is having a serious impact now on families in our region.

“If the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ and reducing health inequalities we need a fairer alcohol duty system to reduce harm to individuals, reduce pressure on our emergency services and raise much needed money to invest in our public services.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “The decision to freeze alcohol duty today is a huge blow for the health of our population. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths caused by alcohol have hit a new record high in England and Wales and high-risk drinking increased by almost 90% between February and September last year. Alcohol treatment services are on their knees whilst off-trade alcohol sales have hit new heights.

“It is absurd that despite the mounting strain that alcohol places on our NHS and public services, the Government has taken the decision – yet again – to freeze alcohol duty, prioritising the interests of the alcohol industry above this country’s health.

“The Government has been taken in by the alcohol industry’s misleading claim that duty freezes will help prevent pub closures. The evidence shows that duty freezes do not benefit pubs, instead they accelerate consumer shift towards low-priced alcohol at supermarkets, making it harder for pubs to compete.
“This Budget represents a failure to take alcohol harm seriously and the most vulnerable in our society will continue to suffer the consequences.”

Public Health England estimates that alcohol costs the UK at least £27 billion a year. Yet over the past five years, alcohol duty has raised just £10.5-£12.1 billion annually .

Balance is now urging the Chancellor to use a major review of the alcohol duty system which was launched in Sept 2020 to take forward a fairer system to tackle the cheapest, strongest and most harmful drinks, protect emergency services and the NHS, and help pubs by narrowing the price gap with supermarkets.