Alcohol tax: Experts demand booze crackdown and call for sugar levy-esque measure


Beer, wine and spirits might cost even more and be sold with extra warning labels under new proposals put forward by experts and politicians.

Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) today called for an independent review into the harms of alcohol. 

It wants ministers to be given a catalogue of ‘evidence-based’ policy interventions designed to tackle Britain’s boozing culture.

A similar Government-commissioned review on tobacco this summer gave a string of radical recommendations — including banning today’s children from ever being able to buy cigarettes. Critics branded it ‘nanny-statism on steroids’.

In an open letter to Rishi Sunak, the coalition of charities, MPs and Lords hinted that it would back extra taxes on alcohol and reduced advertising for booze. 

They said: ‘There is strong evidence behind the effectiveness of measures to reduce the affordability, promotion and availability of alcohol, such as alcohol taxes and a comprehensive restriction of alcohol advertising.’ 

AHAUK is also calling for a ‘prominent health warning’ and calorie information to be stuck on beer, wine and spirit packaging.

Booze already comes with some labels, such as pregnancy warnings, but does not currently have any nutritional guidelines. 

Alcohol could cost more and come with more warning labels under new proposals put forward by experts and politicians

Under a crackdown introduced in 2011, the UK alcohol industry committed to ensure 80 per cent of bottles and cans are labelled with how many units are in the drink, what the national guidelines are, and pregnancy warnings

Under a crackdown introduced in 2011, the UK alcohol industry committed to ensure 80 per cent of bottles and cans are labelled with how many units are in the drink, what the national guidelines are, and pregnancy warnings

Are ‘please drink responsibly’ labels pointless? 

Sticking ‘please drink responsibly’ messages on alcohol may not help risky drinkers cut down, research suggests.

Heavy drinkers see the labels as a ‘ploy by the industry’ to appear like it cares about consumers’ health. 

Oxfords Brookes University experts say it means the labels, introduced more than a decade ago, are ‘unlikely to be effective’.

Instead, messages need to be more ‘personally relevant to consumers’, scientists concluded.

The new study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Researchers quizzed 20 drinkers, aged from their 20s to their 60s, about their views on the warnings and how they influence boozing. The majority were classed as risky drinkers, meaning they are in the top 5 per cent of drinkers nationally.

Participants were shown three types of labels, with one set promoting ‘responsible drinking’, in line with most current packaging.

Another set included positive health messages, for example saying ‘drinking less reduces risk’. 

And a third had negative health messages, suggesting drinking more increases the dangers.

They were all asked for their opinions on all three and how they might affect their drinking behaviour. 

Results showed that risky drinkers did not respond positively to any of the warnings.

The team said this is because they tend to view themselves as responsible in their consumption. 

This meant they did not see the info on labels as being relevant to themselves, the researchers said. 

Adopting the moves would help reduce problem drinking, which costs Britain in the region of £27billion every year, the group said.

Such policies would also keep drinkers informed of how much they are consuming and how fattening it might be, AHAUK claimed. 

But campaigners slammed the ‘nannying’ demands, arguing any tax rise would be unnecessary because Brits already pay more than ‘most of their European counterparts’.

In the UK, adults currently pay 19p on every litre of beer under 7.5 per cent in strength and 25p on anything stronger. 

A bottle of wine from 5 to 15 per cent alcohol carries nearly £3 in duty tax.

Alcohol duty usually rises with inflation but was due to be frozen in February 2023 before Jeremy Hunt U-turned on Kwasi Kwarteng’s policy last month.

Britons are urged not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis — the equivalent of six pints of lager or 10 small glasses of wine.

American men are advised not to drink more than the equivalent of 14 small cans of beer a week, while women should stick to no more than seven small glasses of wine. 

Drinking too much over the long-term increases the risk of a catalogue of illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, liver disease and cancer. 

Under a crackdown introduced in 2011, the UK alcohol industry committed to ensure 80 per cent of bottles and cans are labelled with responsibility warnings.

This includes stating how many units are in every drink, what national guidelines are, and pregnancy warnings. It also includes the generic ‘please drink responsibly’ messaging.

But the labelling is not mandatory and an AHAUK report in June found only 3 per cent of alcohol products come with a general health warning.

Research published last week suggested messages on bottles may not actually help risky drinkers cut down.

Today’s letter to the Prime Minister was signed by MPs including Labour’s Dan Carden, chair of the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice all-party parliamentary group (APPG), and Christian Wakeford, who last year defected from the Tories to Labour.

It was also signed by experts like Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of Alcohol Health Alliance UK, and Dr Tony Rao, consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

They said problem drinking is causing ‘harm across the UK, beneath which hide many personal tragedies’.

Alcohol is the leading risk factor death in under-50s and alcohol deaths rose to an all-time high during the Covid pandemic. 

The letter said: ‘In total, alcohol costs our society at least £27billion every year, of which less than half is offset by tax revenue on alcohol. 

‘This includes direct costs such as the £11.4billion incurred by alcohol-related crime, as well as indirect costs such as contributing to overweight and obesity.’

It did not specify how much alcohol taxes should rise by or what the reduction in advertising would look like. 

The group also did not say whether the tax would be an increase of current duty taxes or a new levy like the one placed on sugary products.

That levy increased the price of drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml by 24p per litre.

AHAUK — which represents 60 organisations working together to reduce the harm caused by alcohol — also hopes its calls for better labelling will be implemented in ‘a new national Alcohol Strategy’.

All alcohol products should include pregnancy, drink-driving, age and health warnings, according to the group.

And they should also display ingredients and nutrition information as well as Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines on low-risk consumption, they say.

But campaigners said the proposals to increase tax would hit the poorest households most and reducing advertising and bolstering warnings are ‘nonsense’.

Daniel Pryor, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute thinktank, told MailOnline: ‘We tax booze to pay for the social costs of drinking like antisocial behaviour. 

‘But current levies comfortably cover those costs and British drinkers fork out more money to the taxman than most of their European counterparts.’

He added: ‘More ad ban nonsense misunderstands how marketing works — it doesn’t brainwash us into having another pint, it just encourages us towards one brand rather than another. 

‘And whilst sensible labelling on things like calories can help inform drinkers, it runs the risk of being hijacked by temperance campaigners to promote unscientific scare stories.’

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the Government’s U-turn on freezing alcohol duty has ‘encouraged the temperance lobby to push for its usual grab bag of puritanical policies’.

He told MailOnline: ‘With a third of pubs expecting to go bust by next year, the government would be mad to pile further taxes on drinkers. 

‘The UK already has the fifth highest tax on wine in Europe, the fifth highest tax on beer and the sixth highest tax on spirits. 

‘If high taxes were the key to responsible drinking, we would be one of the most sober nations on Earth.’

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘With costs rising, Brits cannot be expected to pay even more tax on the price of a pint.

‘Further hikes in booze duties would only hammer the households who are hardest up, while doing little to dissuade problem drinkers.

‘The chancellor should stand with the millions of taxpayers who enjoy the odd tipple and honour the previous promise to freeze and simplify alcohol duties.’

DO YOU DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL? THE 10 QUESTIONS THAT REVEAL YOUR RISK

One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.

The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.

To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.

YOUR SCORE:

0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.

Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.

8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).

16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.

20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.

Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.

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