Psychiatrists say Northern Ireland plans for minimum price for alcohol could save lives

Introducing a minimum price for alcohol in Northern Ireland is an important step in the prevention of suicide and self-harm, as well as addressing wider health and social issues, the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland has said.

Dr Philip McGarry, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland, welcomed the consultation into alcohol pricing launched today by Social Development Minister Alex Attwood and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey – but said the floor price must be set high enough to have a genuine impact on problem drinking.

Speaking at the launch, Dr McGarry said there are strong correlations between alcohol and mental health problems. “Psychiatrists see the effect of alcohol abuse on patients every day, and it’s clear this is exacerbated by irresponsible promotions that encourage people to drink more than they otherwise would,” he said.

Dr McGarry said it is important the Northern Ireland Executive takes a tougher stance than England, where the Government plans to set a minimum price by imposing a ban on selling alcohol for less than the combined tax and duty paid for it, resulting in a minimum price of 31 pence per unit of beer and 28 pence per unit of cheap spirits. Medical professionals have said these price measures will do little to tackle the health problems caused by alcohol.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for a minimum price of 45 pence a unit, to put a floor under discount wars. This would have very little impact for moderate drinkers – increasing the average spend by about £10 a year – but would be a deterrent for young binge drinkers and people dependent on alcohol.


It is estimated that 75-80% of alcohol is consumed by the 20-25% of people who misuse it. Any pricing policy will mainly target heavy drinkers, who buy 15 times more alcohol than moderate drinkers, spend 10 times as much a year, and pay 40% less per litre of pure alcohol through cheaper preferences.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ major 2010 study into suicide and self-harm found that alcohol is a key risk factor. Alcohol both increases the symptoms of mental health problems such as depression and at the same time lowers inhibitions. This can result in impulsive self-harm, including suicide.

Dr McGarry said. “This isn’t a case of psychiatrists saying that alcohol per se is bad, for most people there is no problem with people enjoying a drink. It is about facing up to the consequences of harmful drinking, particularly among young people where affordability is a key factor. The increase in problem drinking has coincided with alcohol becoming much more affordable, two thirds cheaper in relative terms than in 1980.

“We understand that this might not be a popular move, but many of the initiatives that we now accept as being essential to saving lives, such as the introduction of seat belts in cars, were unpopular when they were introduced.

Dr McGarry continued: “For many people, minimum pricing would have advantages. Pubs are being undercut by supermarkets meaning that more people are drinking at home. Supermarkets are selling alcohol below cost to get people through the door, and that means that our grocery bills are subsidising cheap alcohol, so for people who drink moderately, minimum pricing will have very little, if any, negative impact.”

About alcohol and mental health

Alcohol can be a trigger for mental illness, but can also make symptoms worse when people ‘self medicate’. Excessive drinking can cause problems in the home that result in children developing mental health problems.

There are clear links between alcohol abuse and addiction. A significant percentage of people who die by suicide, and of people who present at hospitals with deliberate self-harm, suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide have been drinking heavily. People with an alcohol addiction are much more likely than the general population to die by suicide.

Read the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland’s factsheet on alcohol and mental health.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has also produced a range of information on alcohol and mental health for members of the public.

For further information, please contact Liz Fox or Deborah Hart in the Communications Department.
Telephone: 020 7235 2351 Extensions. 6298 or 6127