Setting a minimum price on alcohol would lower drinking-related deaths, study shows

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — If you’ve ever been to a bar after work, you probably know how popular “happy hour” can be. Reducing the price on alcoholic drinks may bring in big crowds, but a study finds it may also lead to more health problems too. Researchers in Canada say locking in a fixed minimum price on alcohol reduces deaths and hospitalizations caused by drinking.

Lead researcher Adam Sherk says “minimum unit pricing” would set a strict floor for the alcohol industry. The study’s plan defines a standard drink by its pure alcohol content, which in Canada and the United States is roughly the amount of ethanol inside a 5-percent bottle of beer. Bars and other businesses would not be able to sell drinks below a set price, even during happy hour.

Sherk adds this kind of government policy “would result in a substantial and lasting reduction in the harms caused by alcohol in society.”

“As we continue to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and hear concerns about overwhelming our health care systems, this study shows that a minimum unit price for alcohol would help to free up valuable resources by decreasing alcohol’s burden on our health care systems,” the study author from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research explains in a media release.

Do price floors work?

The study notes that similar pricing laws exist in Scotland, Wales, and some Canadian provinces. Researchers add these policies usually have the biggest impact on inexpensive liquor and spirits, but only small effects on wine.

Sherk and his team looked at how imposing minimum unit pricing would affect Québec, which has no such alcohol policy. To do this, their study relied on the International Model of Alcohol Harms and Policies (InterMAHP). This system estimates alcohol-related harms across a state or nation and the possible health impacts of government policies aimed at limiting these incidents.

Focusing on Québec in 2014, researchers looked at data on the province’s hospitalizations and deaths, sales of wines and spirits, beer sales, and the amount of alcohol use per capita. Their findings link about 2,850 deaths and 24,694 hospitalizations to alcohol use during that time. These figures include some deaths from cancer, heart disease, and drinking-related injuries. The most common of alcohol-related hospitalizations came from unintentional injuries.

The model shows that if Québec had a minimum unit pricing law which made every drink cost at least CAD$1.50 (or $1.12 in the U.S.) the number of deaths would have dropped by 5.9 percent. If the floor had been raised to CAD$1.75 (about $1.31 in American money) deaths would have dropped by 11.5 percent. That’s 327 deaths prevented by instituting a barrier to cheap drinks, researchers say.

Mixed messages about alcohol and health

The study model also finds hospitalizations would also drop by imposing a minimum price law on alcoholic beverages. However, there is evidence showing moderate alcohol use can benefit your health. The data reveals alcohol use did have a connection to lower hospitalizations related to heart conditions and diabetes.

Overall, minimum unit pricing still helps to lower the total number of hospitalizations caused by drinking. The study finds a minimum price of CAD$1.75 would have reduced hospitalizations by 4,014 in Québec; a drop of over 16 percent.

“This report adds to the growing body of evidence that minimum unit pricing policies are an effective way for governments to reduce alcohol-related hospital visits and save lives,” Sherk concludes. “National and jurisdictional governments, including Québec, should consider following the lead of countries like Scotland and implementing these policies.”

The study appears in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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