16 Aug 2023
The alcohol duty freeze, in place since early 2020, ended on August 1st, leading to a 10.1% rise in alcohol duties. In it’s place, a tax reform has been implemented, which bases the duty on the alcohol's strength rather than its type. The aim is to encourage consumers to cut back on their level of alcohol consumption.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claims this move would support "wider UK tax and public health objectives". The strategy seems to focus on discouraging access to harmful substances, similar to the recent NHS plan to battle the opioid crisis which aimed to reduce reliance on prescribed opiods. However, against the backdrop of continuing NHS strikes and the cutback of vital addiction services, Rehabs UK managing director Lester Morse is sceptical: “All they can really do is prescribe less. However, those who believe that addiction can be curbed by simply removing substances used by individuals with addiction problems lack an understanding of addiction and historical evidence.”
A gross misunderstanding of the nature of addiction
When discussing addiction, Morse frequently encounters misconceptions or even defensiveness: “People often say “Well, I could just stop drinking and get on with my life.” If that’s true, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the people that can't stop and can't get on with their life, such as people like me with a mental health condition.”
“Not everybody that uses alcohol is an alcoholic, and not everyone that drinks too much is an alcoholic. There are many different groups of people with varying reasons for drinking - some with problems, some without problems.”
Musing on his own experiences with addiction, Morse explains how addiction differs: “I'm presuming that not everybody drinks strong alcohol just because they want to get drunk, some people buy a drink for the taste, not the effect. But this is different for alcoholics. A lot of the things that I was drinking, it wasn't for enjoyment. If I wanted something that tastes nice, I'd probably go and get a chocolate milkshake.”
This is precisely the reason why Morse is not confident in the government’s approach to curbing addiction - raising prices on strong alcoholic drinks might discourage some, but it is unlikely to affect addiction rates: “If you're drinking alcohol for the effect, it doesn't really matter how much you charge for it or what you have to do to get it. If that's your poison, you're gonna go after it again and again.”
“If you're drinking alcohol for the effect, it doesn't really matter how much you charge for it or what you have to do to get it. If that's your poison, you're going to go after it again and again.”
Morse likens the strategy to spraying a rusty car - it looks good in the short term, but he is not convinced it will be effective in the long term: “For the people with addiction problems, I can't see it having any effect except costing them more money, which inevitably will cause more stress, which will cause more crime, which will cause more upset, which will probably lead to more drinking.”
Limiting access does not limit addiction
Morse notes that these measures are indicative of an inherent misunderstanding of addiction: “I've been in the addiction treatment industry most of my life. Most people think, just stop taking the drugs and drinking and it will go away. It won't go away, addiction will not go away. All you can do is treat it, daily, for the rest of your life.”
“Most people think, just stop taking the drugs and drinking and it will go away. It won't go away, addiction will not go away.”
Morse stresses that addiction runs deeper than merely the access to harmful substances: “I think when people can't afford alcohol, they turn to other things. That's the trouble with prohibitions and attempting to create these barriers.
They're not just going to stop doing it. They're not going to say: “Oh, there's another 50p on a bottle of wine. I'm going to sort my life out.” That would be wonderful if that's what happened, but for somebody with an addiction problem, they would just find it somewhere else.”
“People are not gonna say: “Oh, there's another 50p on a bottle of wine. I'm going to sort my life out.” For somebody with an addiction problem, they would just find it somewhere else.”
The Office for Budget Responsibility expects that the new alcohol tax will raise £13.1 billion in 2023-24. Morse says: “If they use all this extra taxation for treatment providers, that would be wonderful. But I doubt that’s going to happen.”
Ultimately, research is clear on the best ways to decrease addictions in society, and it does not focus on prohibitive measures. It focuses on the core reasons behind addictions, rather than sticking plasters on broken legs. Really battling addiction looks like improving mental health and addiction services, decreasing homelessness tackling the cost of living crisis and reducing poverty. Morse says: “Substance use disorders are symptoms of a systemic, socioeconomic type of disease. We cannot hope to eradicate addiction until we treat the deeper issues affecting our society, and until we provide meaningful and comprehensive mental health care to everyone that needs it.
“I don't see addiction as an alcohol or drug problem, it’s a mental condition and I still suffer from it. Sometimes on a daily basis. And without a preventative program or treatment, I don't know where I'd be. Probably on medication and alcohol myself.”
Here to help
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Rehabs UK is here to help. Rehabs UK is committed to continuing to support those battling alcoholism, drug addictions and behavioural addictions. To access free assessments with trained treatment advisors, contact Rehabs UK.