Plans for minimum pricing of alcohol and a ban on multibuy deals have been ditched by the government, ending months of speculation.
Home Office minister Jeremy Browne announced today any plans for minimum unit pricing (MUP) would be put on hold, at least until after legal action over moves in Scotland had run its course – expected to take several years.
The government has been consulting on its intended 45p per unit minimum price and a ban on multibuy price promotions since November.
“Minimum pricing remains a policy under consideration but we do not have enough concrete evidence that it will have a concrete effect without penalising people who drink responsibly”
Today the government revealed it would instead push ahead with a ban on below-cost sales of alcohol, defined as the level of duty plus VAT – a move the industry had agreed to implement before the prime minister David Cameron announced his support for MUP to tackle what he has called the “scourge” of binge drinking.
Ministers have expressed concern that plans for minimum pricing could end up punishing responsible drinkers. “We are not in the business of making laws that don’t work,” Browne told the House of Commons today. “Minimum pricing remains a policy under consideration but we do not have enough concrete evidence that it will have a concrete effect without penalising people who drink responsibly.”
Browne added there was a “lack of concrete evidence” that a multibuy ban would have a significant impact “especially when many people are struggling hard to balance their books”. The government’s response also pointed to industry figures, revealed by The Grocer last week, that showed retailers and suppliers were on course to hit their target of slashing a billion units of booze from shelves within the next two years, under alcohol reduction measures in the Responsibility Deal.
However, Browne said the government would now be calling on companies to do more, including further unit reductions and more education around responsible drinking.
He also said it would throw its weight behind local authority measures to tackle harmful drinking.
Responding to the announcement, WSTA chief executive Miles Beale said: “We welcome the government’s recognition of the industry’s positive contribution to encouraging responsible drinking through the Responsibility Deal.
“Minimum unit pricing would unfairly penalise the majority of responsible consumers while doing little to tackle the root causes of alcohol misuse”
Miles Beale, WSTA
“It is only by working in partnership with industry that alcohol misuse in the UK can be tackled effectively. Pledges such as removing one billion units from the UK alcohol market are testament to this approach and to the industry’s commitment.
“We remain opposed to Minimum Unit Pricing. We agree that there is insufficient evidence to support the introduction of minimum unit pricing. It would unfairly penalise the majority of responsible consumers while doing little to tackle the root causes of alcohol misuse,” Beale added.
Beale said the proposed ban on multibuys would have “adversely affected millions of consumers and businesses, while doing nothing to tackle problem drinkers.”
The Portman Group, the booze industry body dedicated to social responsibility issues around drinking, also welcomed the announcement. “Through a series of voluntary pledges aimed at improving public health, the industry has proven itself to be committed and willing partners and welcomes the opportunity to continue this successful approach going forward,” said Portman Group CEO Henry Ashworth.
Diageo Great Britain’s country director Andrew Cowan also welcomed the move. “As an industry leader Diageo has long championed responsible drinking and we welcome the government’s challenge to industry to continue this. Diageo already supports, with partners, many successful initiatives, including Purple Flag and Best Bar None.
“This week we launched a new, pan-European campaign, ‘Think How You Drink’, which uses a light-hearted tone to deliver a serious message, to encourage young people to consider their alcohol consumption carefully. We will continue to prioritise targeted, effective campaigns to deliver this important message.”
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) called on the government to go further in its definition of below-cost sales of alcohol, saying it should include the costs of manufacturing, distribution and promotion.
“Aggressive below-cost alcohol price promotions by multiple chain supermarkets undermine the competiveness of the overall grocery market and therefore have an adverse effect on consumer choice,” said FWD chief executive James Bielby.
“There is also strong anecdotal evidence that the sale of below-cost alcohol has knock-on effects on public health, as people are able to buy products at excessively low prices. It also encourages smaller retailers to buy duty-avoided stock from criminals in order to compete on price.”