The best way to curb problem drinking and the negative effects of alcohol use is a simple matter of pricing.
The recommendation comes from a year-long study released last month by the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.
Researchers examined 20 years of alcohol pricing and sales data in the province. They found that a 10-per-cent increase in the minimum price of all alcoholic drinks led to a 3.4-per-cent decrease in consumption.
According to one of the study authors, the results are just part of a larger picture.
“Our study’s relevant to much wider literature,” said Tim Stockwell, UVic psychology professor and the centre’s director. “Every comprehensive review of what works for preventing harms from alcohol concludes that it’s the price of the stuff that’s the most effective policy lever, if you like, that could be pulled on to make a difference.
“The point about minimum pricing is that we have lots of independent evidence that the people who drink the most, drink the cheapest stuff.”
Currently, minimum prices in B.C. vary depending on alcohol type. Stockwell and his colleagues are recommending that the province adopt a single price per standard drink – whether a bottle of five-per-cent strength beer, a medium glass of average-strength wine or a shot of liquor.
“Different beverages are not treated the same and from a health and safety point of view, what matters is the price of the ethanol,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s beer, wine or spirits.”
Not only could raising the minimum price of alcohol have a positive social impact, it also has an economic benefit, Stockwell said.
He cited the example of Saskatchewan, which raised prices in 2010 due to a revenue shortfall from the potash sector and ended up with more money than expected. The same principle applies to private retailers, who see guaranteed floor prices as a means for more profit.
“The province continues to review its alcohol policies to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between efforts to address the misuse of alcohol and the interests of British Columbians who consume alcohol responsibly,” wrote Tarina Palmer, spokesperson for the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, in an email responding to the report.
“The alcohol pricing policy recommendations by our provincial health officer, the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. and others are being considered as part of our ongoing review.”
While it’s too early to tell whether the province plans to follow the study’s main recommendation, which was also made by the provincial health officer in a 2008 report, other governments have already taken note. The Scottish parliament recently introduced a similar bill, citing the same research that was used to prepare the UVic centre’s report.
The study is the first in a research program funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. Future reports from the program will look at minimum prices in several Canadian provinces and the impact they have on consumption patterns and levels of alcohol-related harm.