As approximately 4% of all deaths worldwide can be attributed to alcohol consumption, governments around the world are looking for policy approaches that can reduce the harms of alcohol use and misuse at a population level.
One policy approach that governments are increasingly looking at is minimum alcohol pricing. Minimum alcohol prices help to avoid situations where very low prices entice individuals into purchasing and consuming more alcohol than they otherwise might. Minimum price policies can also help set prices in relation to the percentage of alcohol content that a product has — higher prices for higher alcohol content.
There is strong and growing evidence that:
- reduced alcohol consumption lowers rates of alcohol-related illnesses, injuries and social problems;
- high-strength products are associated with risky patterns of alcohol consumption;
- younger and heavier drinkers tend to choose cheaper alcohol.
So, what does minimum pricing have to do with FASD prevention? Quite a lot actually. An individual woman’s pattern of alcohol consumption is deeply connected to the context in which she lives. A woman’s drinking patterns can be affected by the drinking patterns of her friends and partner, the typical drinking practices in the part of the country where she lives, the packaging size of alcoholic beverages, alcohol advertising legislation, and the geographic density of outlets that sell alcoholic beverages – just to name a few things. Many of these factors can be greatly influenced by policy.
Looking at alcohol policy as a solution to FASD prevention also allows us to shift from focusing on individual women (which often results in a lot of blaming, guilt, and pressure on pregnant women) and to find broader solutions that affect communities and populations and have many positive outcomes, not just a reduction in FASD.
A research study published this week in the journal Addiction provides more evidence to support minimum alcohol prices. Researchers from the Centre for Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria found that between 2002 and 2009, the percentage of deaths caused by alcohol in British Columbia dropped more than expected when the minimum alcohol price was increased. A 10% increase in the average minimum price for all alcoholic beverages was associated with a 32% reduction in wholly alcohol attributable deaths (this includes things such as alcohol abuse, poisonings due to alcohol, excess alcohol blood level). You can take a look at the press release (Feb 7 2013) for the study here.
This latest study shows that even the heaviest of drinkers reduce their alcohol consumption when minimum alcohol prices increase – an important finding for those concerned with FASD prevention. You could think of it as a different form of harm reduction.
The study is also interesting as it gives some insight into debates about how alcohol is sold. Over the time period for this study, policies changed to allow for the partial privatization of alcohol retail sales resulting in a substantial expansion of private liquor stores. (Previously in British Columbia, alcohol could only be sold directly to the public in government-owned stores, unlike in Europe or the USA where it is often widely available in supermarkets, gas stations, etc.). The researchers found that a 10% increase in private liquor stores was associated with a 2% increase in acute, chronic, and total alcohol attributable deaths mortality rates.
For more on alcohol policy and FASD prevention, see earlier posts:
Stockwell T, Auld MC, Zhao JH, Martin G. (2012). Does minimum pricing reduce alcohol consumption? The experience of a Canadian province. Addiction, 107(5):912- 920.
Stockwell T, Zhao J, Giesbrecht N, Macdonald S, Thomas G, Wettlaufer A (2012). The raising of minimum alcohol prices in Saskatchewan, Canada: Impacts on consumption and implications for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 102(12): e103-10. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.301094. Epub 2012 Oct 18. See the press release for this study here.
Zhao J, Stockwell T, Martin G, Macdonald S, Vallance K, Treno A, Ponicki W, Tu A, and Buxton J. (2013) The relationship between changes to minimum alcohol prices, outlet densities and alcohol attributable deaths in British Columbia in 2002-2009. Addiction, 108: doi: 10.1111/add.12139