As the BC government’s public consultation on liquor control and licensing laws draws to a close at the end of this month we wish to highlight findings from a province-wide opinion survey conducted last month for MADD Canada and CARBC. While telephone surveys have their limitations we believe the results are indicative of broad support across BC for some fundamental principles: that a major purpose of liquor laws should be to reduce alcohol-related harm (84% support); that consumers need to be better informed about risks, e.g. through labeling (71%); and that some kinds of pricing can be used to reduce harm (62% to 65%).
In this blog, we will mainly address the issue of public support for alcohol pricing policies because the strong evidence behind this approach is not widely known. The scientific evidence shows that alcohol consumption decreases when alcohol prices increase – and, more importantly, there are associated reductions in premature deaths, admissions to hospital and accidents on our roads. However, opinion research has found that most people do not believe heavy drinkers will reduce their drinking if prices are increased.
Furthermore, in the many hundred comments on the public consultation website and the blog series from the parliamentary secretary for the review, John Yap, a common sentiment is expressed: why punish the responsible majority for the behaviour of a small minority who misuse alcohol? While this viewpoint overlooks the existence of risks from moderate drinking (e.g. cancers), widespread occasional heavy consumption and harm from others drinking, this is a critical objection to address in discussions of policies like pricing.
Setting a minimum or floor price on alcoholic beverages is a policy that the BC government has implemented for the last 25 years, though BC minimum prices tend to be lower than most other provinces and are considerably lower than some (e.g. Saskatchewan). This type of policy is well targeted towards heavier drinkers as several studies have shown that those who drink low cost alcohol tend to consume higher amounts.
So do BC minimum prices provide any public health or safety benefit? Using BC hospital data, a recent study published in the American Journal Public Health found that for every 10% increase in minimum prices there was an immediate 9% reduction in hospital admissions for injuries and poisonings ‒ and a similar reduction in serious illnesses caused by alcohol (e.g., liver cirrhosis, cancers) 2 to 3 years later. Similarly, we have found immediate and delayed effects from minimum price increases on alcohol-related deaths.
Thus, there is strong evidence that minimum alcohol pricing avoids punishing the majority of responsible drinkers while having the greatest impact on the behaviour and the health of those most at-risk. We would love to know how public opinion would change if these facts were more widely known. We believe British Columbians would tolerate price increases on the very cheapest, often high strength alcohol products if they actually believed this would prevent fellow citizens becoming seriously ill, injured or dying from the effects of alcohol.
Because minimum prices here are relatively low and, unlike in Saskatchewan, they are not adjusted to reflect alcoholic strength, there are some products that cost less than 75 cents per “standard drink” (i.e., 17.05 mL ethanol or the amount of alcohol in a 12oz can of 5%beer). This makes it possible to exceed Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines while spending less than three dollars per day – usually less than a loaf of bread.
Would you accept increasing the price of the cheapest alcohol to $1.50 per standard drink if you knew that it would save a few lives each year and reduce health care costs?
Author: Tim Stockwell, Director, CARBC
Author: Gina Martin
Author: Andy Murie, CEO MADD Canada