Researchers advocate for stronger measures to reduce alcohol-related harm in the UK

This study provides timely evidence on the seeming ineffectiveness of an intervention designed to reduce alcohol consumption

Theresa Marteau

Banning multi-buy promotions for alcohol, implemented in Scotland in October 2011 as part of the Alcohol Act 2010, failed to reduce the amount of alcohol purchased, according to a new study. The research, conducted by the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia, is published in the leading academic journal Addiction.

Excessive alcohol consumption is a major cause of ill-health and mortality and is also associated with economic and social harm. The Scottish government was among the first in the world to introduce a ban of multi-buy promotion (for example, “2 for £8” and “buy-one-get-one-free”), a popular price promotion tactic used by retail outlets stores. Multi-buy promotions were seen to stimulate bulk purchase and hence greater consumption of alcohol. 

Using detailed household purchasing data from the Kantar WorldPanel, the researchers evaluated the impact of the policy on the volume of alcohol purchased as well as on consumers’ alcohol shopping patterns. The researchers found that the data as of June 2012 showed no evidence that the ban of multi-buy reduced the purchasing of beer, cider, wine, spirits, and flavoured alcohol drinks. In addition, it did not reduce the total amount of units of alcohol purchased.

They also found that the policy influenced shopping patterns of beer and cider, for which multi-buys had been used intensively: Scottish consumers started buying fewer products per shopping trip than they would have without the ban, but went out to buy beer and cider more frequently, leaving the overall amount purchased unchanged.

Theresa Marteau, from the University of Cambridge, said: “This study provides timely evidence on the seeming ineffectiveness of an intervention designed to reduce alcohol consumption.”

Ryota Nakamura, lead author of the study and a researcher with the University of East Anglia, said: “The industry appears to have responded to the ban by replacing multi-buy with simple price reduction, which made it possible for Scottish consumers to buy alcohol at a discounted price but with a smaller financial outlay. This might have mitigated the intended effects of the policy.”

Marc Suhrcke, also from the University of East Anglia, added: “More encompassing policy will be needed to achieve the goal of reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms. Partially banning price promotions leaves the door open for industry to just switch to other forms of price promotions, or indeed to reduce the overall price of alcohol. Imposing greater excise duties on alcohol and introducing minimum unit pricing have been shown to reduce alcohol consumption and associated harms. The government has recently put on hold plans to introduce minimum unit pricing.”

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