THE introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol would reduce deaths and hospital admissions for high-risk drinkers, a major study reveals.
The new research in the 'Lancet' medical journal examined the effects if cheap drink was outlawed in the UK – by making it mandatory to charge at least 45p (54 cent) per unit.
The Irish Government has pledged to introduce legislation here later this year. Scotland is planning the same move, although it was shelved last year in England and Wales.
The study, which will be useful for the Government in fighting off criticism from the off-licence industry, says that minimum pricing for alcohol of 45p (54c) per unit would cut deaths and hospital admissions among high-risk drinkers who purchase large quantities of low-cost alcohol.
But it would have negligible effects on low-income moderate drinkers' alcohol consumption and spending, according to the University of Sheffield study.
The model, which analyses how consumers respond to price changes, estimates how those in different income brackets and socio-economic groups would change their drinking habits and spending if a minimum price for alcohol was implemented.
It also explores how different income groups would be affected by alcohol-related deaths, illnesses and the overall costs to the health service.
The results show that minimum pricing would have the most pronounced effects on the 5pc of the population whose drinking is classified as harmful. This includes men downing more than 50 units per week, or women consuming 35 or more units.
Around 75pc of the reduction in alcohol consumption resulting from minimum pricing would occur in harmful drinkers. Low-income harmful drinkers – the group at greatest risk of long-term health harm – are projected to reduce their alcohol intake by nearly 300 units per year under minimum pricing, and this would result in reduced deaths.
In contrast, the effects on moderate drinkers would be very small. Moderate drinkers in the lowest income group buy on average less than one unit of alcohol a week below the 45p threshold.
According to the study's lead author, Dr John Holmes: "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.
"Policymakers 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."
Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group and a co-author of the study, said no evidence was found to back the "concerns by government and the alcohol industry" that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.
"By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities."