Why Minimum Unit Pricing could prove a win for both consumers and the drinks industry - Analysis

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Towards the end of last year, the UK Supreme Court cleared the path for the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) in Scotland. The decision has prompted many questions: Is this the right approach to tackle the issue of irresponsible drinking? Are moderate drinkers being punished for the actions of a few? Indeed, is the Scottish Government using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Laura Foster investigates.

Minimum Unit Pricing is set to take effect in Scotland from 1 May

Minimum Unit Pricing is set to take effect in Scotland from 1 May

Since first proposing Minimum Unit Pricing, the Scottish Government has justified its intention throughout the last nine years by consistently pointed to the damaging social impact of alcohol abuse in the country. Recent figures have claimed that there were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016, up from 1,150 in 2015 - a not-insignificant rise of 10%.

This alone would give authorities the justification they feel they need to do something. That said, a cynic could argue that broader economic factors also play a role: Alcohol misuse costs the Scottish economy GBP3.6bn (US$4.96bn) each year, the equivalent of GBP900 for every adult.

That's a lot of cash, at a time that many public services across the wider UK are at breaking point.

Drinking Habits

Is MUP the best answer to help consumers keep a handle on their drinking habits? To find out, we spoke to Professor Jonathan Chick, medical director at Castle Craig, a rehabilitation hospital in Scotland specialising in alcohol and drug addiction. Professor Chick is also chief editor of the publication Alcohol and Alcoholism, as well as being on the board of trustees for Alcoholics Anonymous, and has carried out numerous studies on the subject.

"[MUP] is an appropriate strategy as part of a programme of other measures that are known to help people suffer less from harmful alcohol consumption," he says. "It is one element of a reasonable government strategy in a country where there is a large social and financial cost to the people of the country related to alcohol.

"With some government research funding in Scotland in 2008-2009 and 2013-2014, we conducted surveys of ill drinkers - that is, drinkers who have sought help from hospital services - to look at their pattern of drinking and their sourcing of drinking. Around 95% of the alcohol these ill drinkers buy was purchased from off-licences and, of that, 85% was purchased at less than GBP0.50 per unit. So, if there's a floor price of GBP0.50 per unit, then those drinkers who are at risk of making themselves ill will either need to re-budget, or reduce their drinking."

Unfortunately, very few studies have been carried out into the effects of increased pricing on alcohol consumption, but one study of homeless drinkers in Canada looking at what problem drinkers do when their money runs short suggested that most ration themselves or seek treatment for their addiction.

"Severely-dependent people find it difficult to cut down their drinking when they run out of money," says Professor Chick. "I expect there will be a rise in demand on services from that extreme end of severely-dependent drinkers.

"The diminishing cost of alcohol is widely thought to have contributed to the epidemic of numbers in Scotland"

"The objective of MUP that I see is that it will reduce the number of new recruits to very heavy drinking: There's no question that the last two decades have seen a huge increase in that recruitment. There have been a number of factors, but the diminishing cost of alcohol is widely thought to have contributed to the epidemic of numbers in Scotland."

Figures touted by the Scottish Government back up Professor Click's claim: Alcohol is now 60% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980, with 14 units of alcohol available in 2017 for GBP2.52, or GBP0.18 a unit.

The hope, then, is that increasing the cost of a three-litre bottle of 7.5% abv cider to GBP11.25 will be a strong deterrent.

From a consumer's perspective

Based on these factors, it would appear that, from a consumer perspective, MUP could be a positive move.

But, does that make MUP the silver bullet? 

There are other questions, too: Will the Scottish Government provide enough support for those already in the throes of addiction, ie the ones who Professor Chick thinks are most likely to suffer? Will they be looking beyond the drinking itself to tackle the societal and cultural issues that have led to alcohol reliance in the first place? After all, it is fair to say that Scotland's addiction problem doesn't just stem from the availability of cheap alcohol.

The Scottish Government has been making all the right noises, with the announcement of a Substance Misuse Treatment Strategy and GBP20m committed to the programme. Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell: "In the last ten years, our understanding of the underlying causes of addiction and substance misuse has developed, recognising that deprivation, poverty, trauma and adverse childhood experiences can cause people to turn to alcohol and drugs. Treatment can no longer just be clinical, but must also address some of the deep-rooted social and economic circumstances that people face."

This is a promising sign, but only time will tell if the strategy is enough.

The next steps

So, what now? MUP is due to be introduced in Scotland on 1 May, and the suggested GBP0.50 minimum price for a unit of alcohol won't be confirmed until a public consultation period finishes at the end of this month.

"We want to introduce MUP as quickly as possible," declared Health Secretary Shona Robinson in November. "Research shows a minimum unit price of GBP0.50 would cut alcohol-related deaths by 392 and hospital admissions by 8,254 over the first five years of the policy."

The Scottish Government has carried out much of the legwork required to make the case for the legislation elsewhere

Meanwhile, other governments around the world will be watching Scotland closely, and may well follow suit quite quickly, with Ireland and Estonia both making noises on a similar front. The Scottish Government has carried out much of the legwork required to make the case for the legislation elsewhere with its studies into the subject.

This certainly isn't the doom-and-gloom story the drinks industry thought it was when the proposal was first made, way back in 2008. Indeed, many in Scotland's on-premise channel are emboldened by the move. "The price consumers will pay in pubs and restaurants won't be affected at all," notes Professor Chick. "More pubs could open, as consumers return to going out to drink if there's less of a cost-benefit from at-home drinking."

That would be a very welcome knock-on effect indeed.

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