Donald MacLeod: Minimum unit pricing is a glass half empty

IN an effort to drive down harms associated with alcohol, particularly for those living in deprived areas and reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions, the charity Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) has demanded a rise in minimum unit pricing (MUP).

They say that the current level of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, introduced in 2018, the first country in the world to do so, was too low, and that it should now be raised to 65 pence per unit.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of AFS, whose laudable aims are to see fewer people, children and families having their health damaged or lives cut short due to alcohol, says: “Helping people to reduce how much they drink must remain a priority, both through the provision of accessibility and recovery-oriented support”. She added that, “increasing the minimum unit price to 65p per unit, and the ready availability of alcohol, needs to be addressed.”

A view firmly endorsed by the Scottish Lib-Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton who says: “Raising MUP in line with the original ambition of the policy would cut alcohol misuse and reduce pressure on our health and justice systems.”

However, having been a very vocal supporter of this flagship policy four years ago, I’m now not entirely convinced a rise would help. Not if the most recent research by Manchester Metropolitan University, published last October, is anything to go by.

This comprehensive study, which analysed Police Scotland data to understand how minimum pricing affected various crimes, found that its introduction had a minimal impact on drink-related crime and that there were no statistical changes in public disorder and nuisance offences.

These findings backed a previous study by Jon Bannister, a professor in criminology, who found that off-trade alcohol sales in Scotland dropped by 8%, but that drop had no discernible impact on alcohol-related crime levels.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of minimum pricing, especially when you consider the sobering fact that alcohol-related deaths in Scotland are at their highest level since 2008, a rise of 17%, especially in our most deprived areas, where people are seven times more likely to be admitted to hospital than those from more affluent areas.

In defending their questionable record on harms associated with alcohol, the Scottish Government were 100 % correct when they said that restrictions placed on the hospitality industry impacted on people’s drinking behaviour and saw more alcohol consumed at home, which is cheaper and takes place in a less controlled environment than pubs or bars.

You don’t say! A point the licensed trade has been telling them for nearly two bruising years. Only to be ignored.

With regards to minimum pricing and future attempts to reduce alcohol related harms, the glass is still half empty and much needs to be done if it is ever to be deemed a success

Paul Waterson, Scottish Licensed Trade Association spokesperson, says: “There are two main points. One is the principle of MUP, which allows the government to become involved in setting the price of a licensed product to curtail abuse. Supermarkets selling alcohol at ridiculously low prices, to drive footfall, and refusing to adhere to their moral obligations as license holders. The second, is because the set level is too low, and a mechanism, a review system, should be put in place for putting the price of MUP up or down.”

I couldn’t agree more, though I doubt we will ever see MUP come down in price once it goes up but there is also time to consider other alternatives, including cutting duty for the on-trade and increasing it for the off-trade.

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