Research explores measures to reduce alcohol harms without impacting pubs and restaurants

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Beer taps in a pub

Higher prices in shops and tighter restrictions on online alcohol sales could help to reduce rising alcohol harms whilst minimising impact on hospitality businesses, according to a new study.

Alcohol harms including deaths and hospital admissions have risen in many countries since the Covid-19 pandemic, including in the UK. At the same time, some hospitality businesses, such as bars and pubs, have struggled.

Research, led by experts at the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health (ISMH) and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), looked at potential ‘sweetspot’ policy options which would likely offer benefits for public services and health, without negative impacts on the hospitality sector.

Reviewing evidence from international studies and legislation in the UK and abroad, the research team identified four possible ‘sweetspot’ policy areas to explore:

  • Alcohol pricing measures including minimum unit pricing (MUP) and alcohol taxation;
  • Regulation of online sales, including rapid delivery services;
  • Encouraging the growth of food or arts focused venues using the local alcohol licensing system, rather than those primarily focused on selling alcohol;
  • Violence reduction interventions focused on late-night venues, including changes in serving or closing times.

These potential policy interventions were then discussed with internationally recognised academics at two expert workshops.

Both higher alcohol taxes and introducing MUP where it was not in place, were highlighted as the most effective means of reducing alcohol consumption and harms without impacting negatively on restaurants, bars or clubs. In these venues, MUP has no effect on the price of alcohol sold and tax makes up a much smaller proportion of sales prices.

Highlighting evidence from Scotland and elsewhere, experts noted that higher shop prices had had little or no impact on bar or restaurant trade.

Regulating online sales of alcohol; such as by restricting the quantity, delivery speed, price promotions and free delivery offers for large orders, and ensuring alcohol is not available online at lower prices than in physical stores, was also assessed as having good potential as a ‘sweetspot’ policy.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, who led the study, said: “During Covid-19, bars and restaurants were closed and restricted whilst sales of alcohol from shops increased. Alongside this, changes in alcohol consumption patterns led to increased health harms and alcohol-related deaths with health consequences. Post-Covid, governments face lobbying to support such businesses, but many health services remain under pressure.

“In setting alcohol policy going forward, there are inevitable trade-offs to be made and therefore ‘sweetspot’ policy options, which can protect public health and health services whilst minimising harm to hospitality businesses, may be important to consider.

“Our findings suggest that the recent Scottish Parliament decision to increase the minimum price on alcohol is a good example of a sweetspot policy. Given our assessment, other nations – such as England and Northern Ireland – can be confident that minimum unit pricing would not negatively affect pubs and restaurants.”

‘Reducing alcohol harms whilst minimising impact on hospitality businesses: ‘sweetspot’ policy options’ is published in International Journal of Drug Policy.