Minimum unit pricing in Scotland reduces alcohol purchases: BMJ study

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) in 2018. Pic:getty/markwagonerproductions
Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) in 2018. Pic:getty/markwagonerproductions

Related tags: Minimum unit pricing, Scotland

Minimum unit pricing appears to have reduced the amount of alcohol purchased by Scottish households by 7.6%, according to a study published in the BMJ this week.

Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol in May 2018,​ after a six year legal battle. It sets a minimum price of 50p (60c) per unit of alcohol (10ml/8g alcohol) as a measure to help tackle damage caused by cheap, high strength alcohol.

This has resulted in a 7.6% reduction in purchases – more than double that of estimates – according to the BMJ study. Researchers are now calling on the rest of the UK to follow suit and introduce MUP.

'The policy has achieved its ambition to make cheap and strong alcohol less affordable' 

When MUP was introduced in 2018, figures showed Scotland reported 22 alcohol-specific deaths and 697 hospital admissions every week on average. Alcohol misuse was estimated to cost Scotland £3.6bn ($4.9bn) a year, with the country reporting the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the UK.

MUP: Good or bad?

MUP seeks to raise the price of cheap, high strength alcohol by setting a minimum price alcohol can be sold at.

The effect on the alcohol beverage category is complex. Premium products (already charging over the MUP threshold and therefore unaffected) may benefit​ from the narrowing gap between them and cheaper brands.

But opponents of MUP argue the policy distorts competition by penalizing efficient, low-cost producers.

Prior to the introduction of MUP, it was possible to buy 14 units of alcohol (the government’s low risk drinking guidelines for one week) for just £2.52 ($3.44).

Around 69% of the country’s volume was estimated to fall under the 50p per unit threshold prior to implementation of MUP.

The BMJ study looked at purchase data for 2015-2018 (thus incorporating two years before MUP and the first eight months of MUP) for 5,325 Scottish households, with 54,807 English households as controls and 10,040 northern England households to control for potential cross border effects.

The study found that the price of alcohol increased by 7.9% after MUP was introduced, and showed a reduction of 9.5g in off-trade alcohol purchased for each adult per household. 

This equates to a reduction of just over one unit per week per person – that of a measure of spirits or half a pint of beer.

The largest reductions were found for beer, spirits, and cider.

“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,”​ say the authors in the study.

Price increases were found to be higher for those households that purchased more alcohol.

Although the impact of MUP was greater on lower income households, researchers believe the change in weekly expenditure was not related to household income but rather to those with greater purchases of alcohol.

The study acknowledges that the data used only covered the first eight months after the introduction of MUP, and calls for future analyses to evaluate long term effects.

It concludes, however, that MUP has been effective in reducing alcohol purchases and therefore, by implication, alcohol consumption.

Examples of MUP

  • a 700ml bottle of spirits at 37.5% ABV must cost at least £13.13
  • a 500ml super strength can of beer at 9% ABV must cost at least £2.25
  • a 2L bottle of strong cider at 6% ABV must cost at least £6

“In terms of immediate impact, the introduction of minimum unit pricing appears to have been successful in reducing the amount of alcohol purchased by households in Scotland,” ​say researchers.

“The action was targeted, in that reductions of purchased alcohol only occurred in the households that bought the most alcohol.

“Our analyses indicate that MUP is an effective policy option to reduce alcohol purchases, particularly affecting higher purchasers, and with no evidence of a significant differential negative impact on expenditure by lower income groups.

"Our data supports the introduction of MUP as an effective policy option in other jurisdictions.”

Study: Immediate impact of minimum unit pricing on alcohol purchases in Scotland: controlled interrupted time series analysis for 2015-18. BMJ 2019; 366. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5274​ (Published 25 September 2019).

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