Researchers at the University of Sheffield estimate that a minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit would save 860 lives and reduce hospital admissions by almost 30,000 each year.
In 2012, the government had sought to introduce a 45p minimum price per unit of alcohol, but shelved the plans last July. The GPC had warned in the months before that it would be a 'disaster' for patients if the proposal was withdrawn.
Now, a study in The Lancet has shown that while the policy would impact harmful drinkers the most, moderate drinkers would be largely unaffected.
The study found that three quarters of the reduction in alcohol consumption would be in harmful drinkers, particularly those on the lowest incomes. Cheap alcohol accounts for 40% of the £2,700 spent on average on alcohol by this group per year.
Whereas high-risk drinkers on the lowest incomes would each reduce alcohol consumption by 300 units a year, equivalent to 150 pints of beer, moderate drinkers would see little change in the cost or quantity of alcohol they consume.
'Time for government to act'
The policy would see low income moderate drinkers each drink only two fewer pints of beer a year, spending just 4p more. Across the whole population, moderate drinkers would each consume one pint fewer and spend just 78p more.
Lead author Dr John Holmes said: ‘Overall, the impact of a minimum unit price policy on moderate drinkers would be very small, irrespective of income. The policy would mainly affect harmful drinkers, and it is the low income harmful drinkers - who purchase more alcohol below the minimum unit price threshold than any other group - who would be most affected.
‘Policy makers need to balance larger reductions in consumption by harmful drinkers on a low income against the large health gains that could be experienced in this group from reductions in alcohol-related illness and death.’
Co-author Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said the study found no evidence to support concerns by the government and the alcohol industry that minimum pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.
‘Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol. By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities.’
Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians’ special advisor on alcohol and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: ‘It is excellent to have this important confirmation of what we have been telling UK government – a minimum unit price for alcohol would not damage the pockets of moderate drinkers whatever their income and is an evidence-based policy that is exquisitely targeted at those, and those around them, who are currently suffering harm.
‘It is time for government to stop listening to the vested interests of the drinks industry and act.’