On 2 December 2016, Public Health England published a review of the evidence on the impact of the health, social and economic impact of alcohol in England. The report also examined the effectiveness of a variety of policies aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm.

The report purports to quantify the cash value of such harm. Althoughit contains some eye catching statistics, there are real challenges in valuation exercises of this sort. The report identifies “tangible”, direct costs (such as costs incurred by the health and welfare systems) and (rightly) highlights the challenges of estimating indirect costs (costs of lost productivity due to absenteeism, unemployment or lost working years due to premature death). More difficult still is an accurate assessment of “intangible” impact associated with pain and suffering or a perceived lower quality of life.

Evidence reviews of this sort are typically used by public services such as the police and the NHS to shape policies aimed at preventing and reducing alcohol-related harm, and by national and local policy makers in their planning of future regulatory proposals. In its discussion of potential new regulation, the review considers:

  • duty increases and other pricing policies - alcohol consumption is found to be highly price-responsive;
  • restrictions on marketing - at the moment there are no mandatory requirements for alcohol labelling, although there is a voluntary code covering alcohol advertising in the UK. The authors are sceptical about how well the voluntary code is working.
  • regulating availability - through policies that reduce the hours during which alcohol is available for sale and limit sales to minors; and
  • increasing the effectiveness of information about health risks - possibly through requiring changes to the form and content of alcohol labelling. Following on from the suite of legislation dealing with the labelling and packaging of tobacco products (which assume full force on 20 May this year), the report draws upon “the experience of tobacco” and plain packaging of alcoholic beverages is floated as one, potentially effective solution.

Of course, there is a long way to go before we see what, if anything, may flow from this report in the years to come – not least because of the breadth of the policies that are discussed at a high level and some of the evidence base relied upon has, to say the least, limitations.