Higher alcohol prices may curb drinking: Study

PHOTO: Higher alcohol prices may curb drinking: Study

Does that bottle of beer or wine have the same appeal if it's more expensive? Maybe not, Canadian researchers say.

Findings published in the journal Addiction showed that each 10 per cent price hike in the minimum price of beer, liquor and alcoholic beverages led people to drink 3.4 per cent less alcohol overall, with consumption of specific types of alcohol falling even more.

Researchers used data between 1989 and 2010 from the Canadian province of British Columbia, where the government sets minimum prices for alcohol and keeps information on its sales. Even after accounting for general economic indicators, they found a strong link between prices and drinking patterns.

"Increases in minimum prices of alcoholic beverages can substantially reduce alcohol consumption," wrote study researcher Tim Stockwell and his colleagues.

Stockwell, who heads the Centre for Addictions Research of BC in Victoria, added that the measure could have important public health implications because less alcohol consumption could help reduce car accidents and ailments such as fatty liver disease.

"All of these things are related to the excessive use of alcohol. Access to our favorite drug does come at a cost," he told Reuters Health.

For every 10-per cent increase in the minimum price of an alcoholic drink, consumption of spirits and liqueurs fell by 6.8 per cent, wine by 8.9 per cent, alcoholic sodas and ciders by 13.9 per cent and beer by 1.5 per cent.

The findings do not prove that price hikes are entirely responsible for the changes in people's drinking habits, and the researchers cautioned that their results are limited by changes in demand.

In addition, they only used data on legally sold alcohol.

Tim Naimi from Boston University's School of Medicine said that raising the minimum price is "something of a silver bullet" when it comes to reining in drinking.

"This is an important finding about an effective but under-utilized policy," added Naimi, who studies alcohol control policies but was not involved in the study.

Still, Naimi said that raising the minimum price of an alcoholic drink can help limit a problem drinker's chance to shift to a less expensive drink, which he said is possible when a tax on certain types of alcohol is increased.

Other health experts also said minimum pricing could be important.

"There is no question that the level of alcohol prices has an effect on the health burden," said Alexander Wagenaar, a health policy expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"So the minimum pricing is a piece of this large picture of how important alcohol tax policy is."

The United States does not currently set a minimum price for alcohol. Scotland announced plans to do so in 2010, while England is currently considering the option.