Alcohol dependency is a complex problem to which there are no simple solutions. There are many routes into dependency, many ways in which it manifests itself and many approaches to treatment. However, dependent drinkers also require access to large, affordable volumes of alcohol. Recent research by Professor Jonathan Chick and colleagues shows that, in Scotland at least, one of the primary sources of cheap, high strength alcohol is white cider.
In a letter published in Clinical Medicine, based on research funded by Alcohol Research UK and the Chief Scientist Office, Chick and colleagues estimate the proportion of all the white cider sold in Scotland consumed by dependent drinkers. They conclude that, even taking a conservative estimation, the majority of all white cider sold is bought by people who are suffering from serious alcohol problems.
The research involved interviews with over 600 severely dependent drinkers in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The team asked what products participants bought, in what quantities and at what prices. Overall, they found that white cider and cheap vodka were very widely consumed and that 85% of purchases were at less than 50 pence per unit.
The findings provide critical insights into the purchasing and consuming patterns of some of the heaviest drinkers (the median weekly consumption was 185 units) – people often overlooked in general surveys and population studies. It is not surprising to find that dependent drinkers look for cheap, high-strength products; however, if it is correct that the vast majority of white cider sales are to individuals with a severe dependency problem, then this must raise questions about the ethics of this sector of the market.
The Scotch Whisky Association’s legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s policy of minimum unit pricing (MUP) is currently going through the final stages, with a decision expected soon. MUP would certainly raise the price of white cider and cheap vodka considerably. As Professor Chick and colleagues have said, we don’t know precisely what impact this might have on very heavy drinkers – and possible detrimental effects (such as switching to counterfeit products) will need to be considered.
However, current tax structures mean that high-strength white cider continues to be sold at very low prices. Voluntary industry action appears to have done nothing to address this issue. If a large proportion of the market for white cider is indeed people with severe dependency problems, then all parties involved should work towards reducing the impact of such products on the wellbeing of individuals and the wider community.
Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development, Alcohol Research UK