When minimum unit pricing (MUP) came into effect in May 2018, it had already faced numerous challenges.
The legislation was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, but endured a lengthy court battle with the Scotch Whisky Association who claimed that the policy amounted to a “restriction on trade” and a breach of European Union law. The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that there was no such breach.
Campaigners and politicians may therefore be relieved to hear about a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last month, suggesting the strategy – which introduced a minimum price of 50 pence per UK unit of alcohol – appears to have enjoyed some early success.
A research team led by Professor Peter Anderson of Newcastle University analysed off-trade alcohol prices and purchases using data from before and after the introduction of the policy in May last year.
The team, which looked at data from both Scotland and England in order to tease out the effects of MUP specifically, found indications that the introduction of the policy had led to significant reductions in off-trade alcohol purchases, and that these reductions were greater among those who purchased more alcohol. The largest reductions were purchases of beers, spirits, and cider.
The authors of the study note, “Given that these categories include the own-brand spirits and high strength white ciders that MUP sought to target, our data suggest that the policy has achieved its ambition to make relatively cheap and strong alcohol less affordable, which in turn should positively impact public health over time.”
Though the study is only focusing on off-trade alcohol purchases, and not at drinks bought at restaurants, bars and pubs, the results are encouraging; in any case, on-trade alcohol sales per adult in Scotland have been decreasing for more than a decade.
An NHS Scotland report from earlier in the year also highlighted the fact that, while per adult alcohol sales are still higher in Scotland than in England and Wales, the gap was smaller in 2018 than it had been since 2003.
This was due both to decreasing sales in Scotland and increasing sales in England and Wales. The Welsh assembly intends to begin implementing MUP from next year.
Statistics relating to previous years can help us to understand the impact of this report. In 2017, 1,120 people in Scotland died from a cause “wholly attributable” to alcohol, according to NHS Scotland; an average of 22 people per week.
Rates of alcohol-specific deaths were more than seven times higher in the ten per cent most deprived areas of the country than in the ten per cent least deprived areas. This inequality has actually narrowed – they were 13 times higher in 2002.
Further reform is obviously required, whilst the BMJ study is an early indication of the success of the policy, more research will need to be done in the long-term.
The policy is fairly experimental with Scotland being the first country in the world to implement MUP, although similar strategies have been attempted elsewhere.
The legislation contains what is known as a “sunset clause”, meaning that it will lapse six years after enforcement unless the Scottish Parliament votes to re-enact it.
It remains to be seen how successful MUP will be in decreasing alcohol-related health issues and deaths in the long term, but early signs are positive and promising.
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