Editorial: Raising prices of drink, lowering costs

When it comes to strategies to reduce the harms from alcohol consumption, governments tend to overlook a powerful tool — pricing. Researchers have found that higher minimum prices for drinks result in significant decreases in crime, violence, health problems and other ill-effects from booze.

Raising certain liquor prices would not generally be regarded as a popular move for a government, but it’s one that could save lives and money.

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When happy hour was implemented in B.C. in June 2014, British Columbians expecting discounted drinks were disappointed at the minimum prices set by the government, so a month later, the minimums were lowered slightly.

Happy hour has indeed brought lower prices, according to analysis done by the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria, but the centre also foresees an increase in harm from alcohol.

The purpose of happy hour is cheaper drinks, says the centre’s Tim Stockwell. The cheaper the drinks, the more people drink, and that increases the likelihood for more harm.

The centre published a paper in June that shows the connection between alcohol pricing and harms.

Published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the paper found that over a nine-year period, a 10 per cent increase in minimum alcohol prices in B.C. was linked with a 9.17 per cent reduction in crimes against people, a 19 per cent reduction in alcohol-related traffic violations and a 9.39 per cent reduction in total rates of crime.

Stockwell, the lead author of the report, said the findings add to the growing body of evidence that says alcohol-pricing policies can be highly effective tools for reducing alcohol-related harms.

“We have already seen substantial reductions in alcohol-related deaths linked to this policy in Canada, so it appears that minimum pricing is a powerful tool for reducing alcohol-related harm at the individual and societal level,” he said.

The paper was the fifth publication released by the centre in the past three years, mostly focusing on the changes in the minimum prices of drinks and their connection to consumption and alcohol-related harms.

The centre, in a paper published in 2013, found that a 10 per cent rise in the average minimum price for drinks between 2002 and 2009 was linked to a 32 per cent decrease in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol.

Those papers are supported by studies in the U.S. and the U.K. over the past three decades that link the pricing of alcohol to its cost to society.

A 1993 U.S. study concluded that higher excise taxes on beer “are among the most effective means for reducing drinking and driving in all segments of the population.” It said that adjusting the federal excise tax on beer between 1982 and 1988 would have reduced alcohol-related fatalities by 11.5 per cent and fatalities among 18- to 20-year-olds by 32.1 per cent.

Stockwell emphasized that the centre’s study didn’t look at raising the prices of all types of alcohol, just the cheapest drinks, such as the eight per cent beers and 23 per cent sherries that many problem drinkers prefer.

He said raising minimum prices results in more revenues for the government, more profits for those selling the drinks and lower costs to society.

“The only ones who wouldn’t benefit are those who want cheaper drinks,” he said. “But personally, I think it’s a small price to pay for fewer deaths and lower health-care costs.”

The government appears nervous about antagonizing the liquor industry. It should be more concerned about the well-being of all of us.

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