Minimum Unit Pricing: The SNP Flagship Policy that 'cost drinkers £270m' since its introduction, but what is it?

In May 2018, Scotland made history by becoming the first country in the world to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP), mandating that alcohol cannot be sold for less than 50p per unit. Here’s what you need to know about the policy.

Minimum Unit Pricing, introduced by the SNP, was aimed at tackling alcoholism in Scotland by lowering the appeal of cheap, high-percentage alcoholic drinks. Minimum Unit Pricing was expected to improve lives and minimise hospital admissions.

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Minimum alcohol pricing: Is Scotland's flagship policy a failure?

Five years on, the SNP’s flagship policy is back in the public eye as recent research published by Public Health Scotland (PHS) has found MUP ineffective.

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PHS found many people’s lifestyles remained consistent despite increased costs, even at the expense of essential utilities like food and heating.

What is the future of Minimum Unit Pricing? And what does it mean to the average Scot?

Minimum Unit Pricing policy history and performance to date

MUP was originally supported by MSPs in 2012 but developments were slow due to an extensive legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association.

Is Minimum Unit Pricing more likely to curb the country's consumption of alcohol? Expert research suggest otherwise.Is Minimum Unit Pricing more likely to curb the country's consumption of alcohol? Expert research suggest otherwise.
Is Minimum Unit Pricing more likely to curb the country's consumption of alcohol? Expert research suggest otherwise.

By 2017, the UK Supreme Court had ruled that it was not in violation of EU Law, setting the stage for its 2018 introduction.

Its popularity resulted in Northern Australia, Wales, and Ireland also enacting minimum pricing policies in the wake of Scotland’s move.

Now in 2022, several research institutions have commented on Minimum Unit Pricing effectiveness.

The PHS report detailed the ‘financial strain’ that problem drinkers faced - an average weekly spending of £83 has since risen to £107.

Rather than minimising alcohol consumption, 29% of drinkers simply reduced their spending on other essential utilities.

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Simply put, it merely “led to a marked increase in the prices paid for alcohol by people with alcohol dependence.”

Christopher Snowden, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, commented: “Consumers have simply switched from the most affordable alcohol to mid-range brands, to the benefit of alcohol producers and retailers… The policy could be dropped tomorrow without costing the government a penny.”

How can Minimum Unit Pricing affect the average Scot?

Aside from economic effects, MUP presents other concerns.

The PHS report revealed that close contacts of problem drinkers commented that the policy compelled alcoholics to increase their consumption of spirits over cider.

This led to cases of increased violence and, what is more, drug users also substituted alcohol for more drugs.

The conclusion was that MUP did not impact the health of drinkers at harmful levels.

Furthermore, it appears to have had a minimal impact on drink-related crime.

Professor of Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, Joe Bannister, stated that reductions in alcohol purchasing has shown a “minimal impact on the levels of alcohol-related crime, disorder and public nuisance reported in Scotland.”

What is the future of MUP?

For now, the future of the policy remains to be seen. A Scottish Government spokeswoman commented: “In 2020 we saw total alcohol sales reported as falling to their lowest level for 26 years.

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“We had already seen that alcohol sales were falling since our world-leading policy was introduced in 2018.

“Prior to the pandemic, the reduction in alcohol specific deaths showed encouraging early signs that the introduction of MUP was having a positive impact.”

The accuracy of this will be determined by the ‘final report’ that PHS shall release in 2023.