Charity calls for alcohol minimum pricing to be extended across UK following study

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Alexandra Luca

The British Liver Trust claims a decrease in alcohol-related deaths is due to the recent policy.

The call follows the publication of evidence suggesting minimum unit pricing (MUP) has had a significant impact on drinking patterns. The British Liver Trust, a liver health charity, said although the results came very soon after the law was introduced and the long-term impact was still being studied, they nonetheless had important implications for MUP in England and the rest of the UK.

Since 1 May 2018, sale of alcohol in Scotland has operated under a 50p floor price per unit of alcohol. This base price per unit increases as the alcohol percentage of the drink increases, resulting in drinks like spirits or strong ciders being more expensive. 

Data presented at the British Association for the Study of the Liver conference in Glasgow shows that alcohol-related deaths in Glasgow alone have fallen by 21.5%, with numbers more significant in deprived areas. Almost half of the deaths in 2018 occurred before May when MUP was introduced.

At the moment Scotland is the only country to enact this specific type of alcohol control policy. Other countries across Europe and North America utilise a combination of taxes or, in the case of Scandinavia, state monopolies on alcohol production and retailing.

Cases were brought by The Scotch Whisky Association and the European Spirits Association since the passing of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012, challenging MUP as interfering with commercial and agricultural trade laws. These legal battles delayed MUP for six years until the European Court of Justice said it is justified on the basis of protecting human life and health, whilst the Scottish Court of Sessions ruled that MUP is consistent with EU law. 

Opinions on the law and its effectiveness are mixed, as charities and public health groups have come out in support of it whilst public opinion is split. 

Sophie, a University of Glasgow student, said while she understands the sentiment of the law, she perceives it as counterproductive and as having a limited effect on those primarily targeted by the measure, whose excessive consumption outs them at higher risks of death, illness and crime. Sophie said her alcohol consumption has decreased from once or twice a week to once every two months since she moved to Scotland from Germany.

“The people that they want to help with these laws only see that the government is increasing alcohol prices,” Sophie said.

Other students, interviewed by the BBC, have claimed that it doesn’t substantially affect their drinking habits.

Retailers can often benefit from the measure, as it gives smaller retailers the chance to compete with bigger players who, prior to MUP implementation, could sell strong alcohol at lower prices to undercut competition. Additionally, MUP is not a tax so the seller retains the markup increase as additional revenue for themselves. 

The Scottish Government stated the intent for this policy is a public health measure ensuring that alcohol is sold at responsible rates. According to the World Health Organisation, affordability is one of the three main factors influencing increased alcohol consumption. 

The Scottish Government uses various research to back up their policy; University of Sheffield modelling predicts 400 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 8000 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions over the first five years, and 120 deaths and 2000 fewer hospital admissions per year after 20 years. Researchers at the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia noticed that raising alcohol prices leads to reductions in consumption, alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions. 

According to The Independent, alcohol sales in Scotland are at their lowest in 25 years.

Such a measure was deemed necessary in Scotland where, according to Scottish Health Survey 2017, one in four people drink at hazardous or harmful levels (more than 14 units per week, meaning seven pints of larger/four 250ml glasses of wine). The NHS reported that alcohol was the cause of one in 15 of the deaths for the whole of Scotland in 2015.

Another University of Sheffield study backs up the claim that the more units per week one drinks, the higher the reduction in units per week after MUP, allowing the policy to hit harder in areas of health inequality. Scotland’s unique policy sets it apart from other EU states where, according to a paper examining alcohol taxation in the EU, alcohol levy duty rates don’t increase with alcohol strength, leading to consumption of cheaper high-strength drinks, especially amongst the underprivileged. 

Current data on the policy is limited as it has only been in effect for one year, awaiting evaluations at the two year and five year marks, after which the Scottish Parliament will be presented with the results and asked to vote on it once again. 

It remains to be seen whether alcohol industry pressure will effectively challenge it or whether public health results of the policy will be convincing enough to push it through in Scotland and perhaps the rest of the United Kingdom.


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