Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing – which sets the lowest price a unit of alcohol can be sold for – when the policy came into effect in 2018.
The current term of the policy, however, ends after six years in April 2024: with the Scottish government now considering the level at which it should be set in the future.
MUP appears to have reduced deaths compared to a scenario where no MUP was in place; but the actual number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland are still rising. This has led the Scottish government to propose increasing MUP past the rate of inflation, to a higher rate that it believes can further reduce deaths and hospital admissions.
If the new rate is brought in in April, it could see the minimum price of a bottle of Scotch whisky rise by 30%.
Aim: reducing alcohol harm
Scotland has the highest rate of death due to alcohol consumption in the UK. Furthermore, those living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas experience death rates more than five times higher than those in the least deprived areas.
The aim of MUP is to reduce the harm caused by alcohol (prior to the introduction of MUP in 2018, Scottish government figures noted 22 alcohol-specific deaths and 697 hospital admissions per week): with the policy designed to mostly impact low cost, high strength alcohol and reduce alcohol consumption in the heaviest drinkers.
In May, a study carried out by researchers from Public Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow suggested a 13% reduction in deaths from alcohol consumption in the two years and eight months following the implementation of the policy. That equates to avoiding around 150 deaths a year (these data are drawn from an estimate, using English data as a comparison, as what the figures would have been without MUP).
However, despite the effect of MUP, the government says there is still more work to be done: with the latest alcohol-specific deaths showing there has been an increase of 2% in 2022 in Scotland.
'There is a balance to be struck'
The Scottish government is now proposing that MUP legislation should continue past April 30, 2024, and that the MUP level should increase from 50p per unit to 65p.
“Public Health Scotland's evaluation of MUP, published in 2023, has found that the evidence points to minimum unit pricing having a positive impact on health – it is estimated to have cut alcohol consumption, alcohol-attributable deaths and likely to have reduced hospital admissions compared to if the policy didn't exist,” said Elena Whitham MSP, Scotland’s minister for drugs and alcohol policy, launching the consultation on MUP this week.
“There was also no clear evidence of substantial negative impacts of the policy on the alcoholic drinks industry, or of social harms at the population level.
“I do recognise that there is a balance to be struck, to ensure that we take steps to improve and support good population health whilst trying to minimise the potential impacts that has both on consumers and industry. This consultation is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to understand the views of respondents on the proposals set out as part of reaching a final decision on MUP.”
Should MUP be raised to 65p a unit?
Public Health Scotland’s evaluation of the current 50p MUP level suggests this has been ‘an effective price’. However, it notes that that effectiveness will reduce as a result of the effects of inflation.
“If MUP continues, it is likely benefits realised will only be maintained at similar levels if the value of MUP is maintained relative to the prices of other products," notes the government in its consultation documents.
“Maintaining MUP at its current level of 50ppu in cash terms is estimated to increase alcohol consumption and hence alcohol harms, because alcohol would become more affordable relative to other products due to inflation. This is not consistent with our policy aim of reducing alcohol-related harm and is therefore not being proposed.”
Similarly, a small increase to 55p per unit would be unlikely to maintain the value of MUP against inflation.
A rate of 60p per unit is estimated to come closest to maintaining the current benefits of the policy, and would uprate the MUP in line with inflation.
However, the Scottish government wants to up MUP further with the goal of increasing its effects.
“65p per unit provides even greater positive health benefits than 60p per unit, with modelling showing it could avert an additional 60 deaths in the first year and 774 fewer hospital admissions compared to 60p per unit," it says.
"The number of hazardous drinkers is estimated to fall by 15,742 and the number of harmful drinkers fall by 11,403, compared to 60p per unit.
"The health benefits would be experienced most acutely by those in the most deprived groups of the population on average, with 22 fewer deaths in the most deprived SIMD [Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation] quintile and 6 fewer deaths in the least deprived SIMD quintile in year one of the policy compared to 60p per unit.
“However, it would have increase impact on industry and market interference. This impact, however, must be considered within the context of rising alcohol harms as latest alcohol-specific deaths show there has been an increase of 2% in 2022.”
Minimum price with 65p MUP
The government argues that a higher MUP (70 – 80p per unit) would further reduce alcohol harms, but says it recognises the impact this would have on consumers and the alcoholic drinks industry.
In particular – given that it would impact up to 80% of the market – it would start to affect premium products (the aim of the policy being to tackle cheap alcohol rather than premium products).
“As Scottish Ministers are seeking a level which will derive greater benefits than the current policy, raising the level to 65p per unit is proposed as the preferred position on price for the purposes of this consultation. This strikes an appropriate balance of achieving increased health benefits while minimising unnecessary interference in the market," concludes the government.
Tackling alcohol harm - a long and complex issue
With the country's 'deep, longstanding and troubled relationship with alcohol', Scotland's government has been considering creating stricter measures against alcohol.
Last year, it proposed introducing strict alcohol marketing restrictions on alcohol: considering banning alcohol adverts in print media, sports sponsorship, outdoor alcohol advertising and alcohol-branded merchandise.
However, these proposals came up against heavy opposition from the industry, with a coalition of more than 100 producers and brands including Asahi UK, Beam Suntory, Carlsberg, Diageo and Heineken UK signing a letter objecting to the proposals and published in The Times.
Furthermore, the government faced the additional challenge in that certain rules around advertising have to be decided by the UK government (the Scottish Parliament only has the power to make laws on devolved matters).
After the consultation closed, the Scottish government acknowledged the high level of concern from the industry and announced that its ideas on advertising restrictions had been sent 'back to the drawing board'.
And while MUP is now well-established, the Scottish government had to fight a six-year legal battle with drinks associations through UK and European courts before the policy could come into effect in 2018 (These drinks associations argued there are more effective and efficient ways to tackle alcohol abuse).
While industry bodies and companies are largely yet to respond to the MUP increase announcement this week, a spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “Alcohol misuse is complex but is a challenge that must be addressed. The Scotch Whisky industry is committed to working in partnership with the Scottish government to achieve that shared goal, including through the SWA’s ‘Made to be Measured’ campaign.
“An increase of the minimum unit price of alcohol in Scotland from 50p to 65p would push up the minimum price of Scotch Whisky from £14 to £18.20 – a significant increase of 30% that would impact consumers across Scotland, the vast majority of whom drink responsibly. We will analyse the consultation in detail and respond in due course.”
The consultation on MUP - which can be found here - closes on November 22.