The historic introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) of alcohol is just weeks away and will mark a significant turning point in Scotland’s damaging relationship with drink.
When this life-saving policy comes into effect on May 1, the positive impact on the nation’s health will be felt in a matter of months. In the first year alone, minimum pricing could prevent 60 alcohol-related deaths, 1,300 hospital admissions and 3,500 crimes, and those health and other benefits will build over time.
It still shocks me that one in 15 of all deaths in Scotland can be directly attributable to alcohol. A report in February by NHS Health Scotland showed alcohol causes 3,700 deaths in Scotland in a year, while more than 41,000 people were admitted to hospital in 2015 as a result of drink.
We should use the very welcome implementation of MUP as a starting point for even more ambitious policies aimed at further tackling Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.
The publication of the Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy due this spring provides us with an ideal opportunity to build on the world-leading development that is MUP and to stimulate a national conversation about how we change our relationship with alcohol, both individually and collectively.
Scotland clearly has a problem with alcohol. Consumption remains significantly higher than in the rest of the UK, with 17 per cent more alcohol sold per adult in Scotland than in England and Wales. Almost all of this was because of higher sales in supermarkets and off-licences where it is sold at the cheapest prices. The vast majority of Scotland’s alcohol is now brought from off-sales for consumption at home and alcohol is 60 per cent more affordable today than it was 30 years ago.
As well as contributing to ill health, harm from alcohol also affects others, including family members, friends, colleagues and the wider community. Half of Scots report being harmed as a result of someone else’s drinking and more than one in three report having heavy drinkers in their lives.
Children living with a drinker may experience a lack of care, support and protection or, in more severe cases, abuse and neglect. There is also a strong association between alcohol consumption and crime, especially crimes of violence. Increasing the price is one of the most cost-effective policy measures to reduce consumption and harm and one which Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) has long supported.
The World Health Organisation recommends MUP as an intervention to prevent and reduce diseases such as heart disease and cancer. We are the first country in the world to introduce MUP (although states in Canada have variants of it), but already Wales, the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Territories in Australia are following our lead.
Minimum pricing targets the most harmful drinkers because they buy most of the cheapest, strongest alcohol like white ciders and own-brand spirits. It is estimated that the heaviest drinkers in our poorest communities will spend around £88 less per year under a 50p minimum price. It is very unlikely they will move on to other substances, such as illegal drugs.
For people drinking heavily, even small reductions can have big health benefits. The impact on moderate drinkers, meanwhile, is minimal – it is estimated they will spend just an extra £2 per year.
MUP will not only help those with chronic alcohol problems but will also stop people getting to that point in the first place. It will help prevent Scotland’s next generation of heavy drinkers.
Health Secretary Shona Robison last month set the minimum price per unit at 50p. That figure dated from 2012 when the legislation was passed and before legal challenges by the Scotch Whisky Association and others.
It is worth pointing out those delays have cost around 400 lives.
To build on the genuine difference MUP will make, AFS seeks a commitment from the Scottish Government to review the MUP within two years, to ensure the benefits are fully optimised.
Its introduction on May 1 is an important milestone and we hope it will also make people reflect on how alcohol is sold in Scotland.
MUP does not signify the end of our campaign but marks the beginning of a proper national conversation.
Alison Douglas, chief executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland.