Flaws in the floor: UK professor discusses gaps in minimum alcohol price concept

A visiting UK professor has admitted at a Perth conference that there are gaps in the research behind implementing a minimum alcohol floor price.

The Mandurah Mail has recently reported a renewed push from the Western Australia Alcohol and Youth Action Coalition to implement the “important public health initiative” to reduce heavy drinking across the state.

A floor price would set a minimum dollar amount per standard drink below which alcohol cannot be sold and would prevent alcohol retailers from selling bargain-basement booze.

Speaking at a public seminar in Bentley on November 15, University of Sheffield’s Dr John Holmes suggested there “might be both positive and negative effects of the policy simultaneously”.

For over a decade, Dr Holmes has focused on research for the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group that follows patterns and trends in alcohol consumption and the analysis of policy options.

His work has been used in the UK and internationally to inform policy debate around minimum pricing.

But Dr Holmes said there were still many unanswered questions in regards to implementing the floor price.

We don’t know a lot about how producers and retailers will respond.

Dr John Holmes

“Regulatory interventions on this scale are fairly unusual in any area, not just alcohol,” he said.

“So we don’t know a lot about how producers and retailers will respond.

“We don’t know what retailers are going to do with this windfall of extra revenue – there is fear that they might spend it on additional marketing activity.

“What will happen to products below the minimum price threshold – will they simply increase in price, will producers or retailers withdraw them from the market because they can’t sell them effectively anymore?

“Or will they reformulate them to reduce the alcohol content and bring them up to the minimum price threshold in that way?

“What about products above the minimum price threshold?”

Dr John Holmes from the University of Sheffield in the UK spoke at a public seminar in Perth last week about implementing a minimum floor price for alcohol. Photo: Kaylee Meerton.

Dr John Holmes from the University of Sheffield in the UK spoke at a public seminar in Perth last week about implementing a minimum floor price for alcohol. Photo: Kaylee Meerton.

Dr Holmes said there could be a number of options available for retailers and producers selling alcohol already above the minimum price threshold.

“One option would be that they simply leave them at the price threshold and they become less premium products,” he said.

“Another option is that some of these products just above the price threshold increase their prices as well, even though they don’t have to, to keep them as premium products rather than being a budget brand.

“Alternatively they may re-brand and say ‘okay, we are no longer a premium product so we’re going to market ourselves as a budget product instead’.”

Run by the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia’s Alcohol Programs Team, the seminar also discussed the impact of minimum pricing on groups of different income and drinking levels.

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Dr Holmes said the reaction of those dependent on alcohol was a major and “important uncertainty”.

”People with alcohol dependence, particularly severe alcohol dependence, are under-represented in the surveys that our modelling relies on,” he said.

“We would expect their dependence to mean that they may at least have some kind of different relationship to price changes to the general population.

“But we only have indicative evidence of what that response might be.”

People with alcohol dependence, particularly severe alcohol dependence, are under-represented in the surveys that our modelling relies on.

Dr John Holmes

Dr Holmes provided an example of a survey of homeless people with alcohol dependence in Canada which asked respondents how they coped when alcohol was no longer affordable.

“The most popular responses were to go without alcohol, to make their supply last longer, to wait for more money or to re-budget which may mean spending less money on food or eating or other essential needs,” he said.

“Other options included seeking treatment, drinking non-alcoholic beverages or using drugs.

“So there’s a mixture of potential responses here – we’ve got positive and problematic coping strategies being reasonably commonplace.

“The most we can draw from the evidence we have at this point is that the response of dependent drinkers on minimum pricing may be quite varied and it should be monitored carefully to identify any problematic responses early.”

The professor suggested there was also a number of questions regarding the impact of the floor price on younger drinkers and to people living with or in the company of heavy drinkers.

But he was confident that, based on his many years of research, a minimum price for alcohol was the answer to reducing alcohol-related harm – not just across WA but also the world.

As far as the evidence can tell us, we can be reasonably confident about our conclusions.

Dr John Holmes

“There are obviously lots of uncertainties when you’re doing these kinds of modelling,” Dr Holmes said.

“We’ve used different data sets and different modelling assumptions and analytical methods.

“But we’ve actually been surprised at how robust our central conclusions are – that it’s effective and it’s targeted.

“As far as the evidence can tell us, we can be reasonably confident about our conclusions.”

The Mandurah Mail team will continue to develop this controversial issue with further investigation in the upcoming weeks.

What are your thoughts on implementing a minimum floor price for alcohol in WA? To share your opinion get in touch with the Mandurah Mail team via editor.mandurahmail@fairfaxmedia.com.