Pricing optimism is entirely misplaced

Despite health arguments, MUP will not reduce harmful drinking

Holyrood’s minimum unit price of 50p was introduced on May 1

EVERY single day, without fail, I come across a negative story about alcohol retailing and, on a regular basis, more calls to impose tighter curbs.

Even so, a run of stories a few weeks ago broke all records, as it started to become clear that anti-obesity activists had started to copy the ‘alcohol playbook’.

That campaigners’ manual is, of course, modelled on the ‘tobacco playbook’. If smoking can be discouraged by advertising and display restrictions, together with massive price hikes and health warnings on packaging, why shouldn’t we apply those devices to alcohol?

When a study “raised important questions about the local food environment’s influence on the diet of young children”, that was a fancy way of saying that children living in poor areas with a high concentration of fast-food outlets were more likely to gain weight.

If that’s correct, the solution is less than obvious – short of closing down shops selling poor quality food or imposing a tax on kebabs (to match the sugar tax, of course).

Incidentally, a council’s attempt to ban a burger van from trading near a school was overturned not long ago in a licensing appeal.

The alcohol playbook is certainly evident in the ‘food environment’ research.

And shortly after it hit the headlines, another report from the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) suggested that crime rates were “soaring” in areas with the most alcohol outlets – not just off-licences, but also pubs.

That prompted one headline writer to make the sweeping claim that “Alcohol fuels crime across Scotland”.

Once again, correlation had been mistaken for causation.

Then more research concluded that Scotland’s poorest people are “disproportionately affected” by the availability of alcohol in their neighbourhoods.

More licences in these areas would result in more drinking. So, if four outlets in an area became five, locals would purchase more alcohol.

That study came to mind a fortnight ago as further claims were made on the expected benefits of minimum unit pricing (MUP).

Alison Douglas, the Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive, considered the possibility that the measure would “reduce health inequalities”: the “poorest communities [have] the most to gain from minimum pricing because they suffer the most harm”.

In fact, supporting MUP would “make the life chances of our children fairer”.

Unless we take radical steps to tackle alcohol dependency we will never make progress.

Ms Douglas is not alone in expressing an optimistic outcome for low-income communities.

According to Colin Angus, a researcher at Sheffield University who helped model the predicted effects of MUP, targeting those “who shoulder the greatest burden from their drinking”, MUP will result in “a nation which is both more healthy and less unequal”.

An entirely different analysis is possible, leading to precisely the reverse result.

Hazardous drinkers in poverty – those who suffer from an alcohol dependency – are unlikely to reduce their consumption to a safe level (of course, we’re repeatedly warned that no level is safe).

Instead, it’s probable that this group – MUP’s primary target – will dig themselves even deeper into poverty by cutting back on their food bills and home energy costs.

Then there’s the real risk of “substance displacement”.

Dr Michael Colvin, an NHS consultant, told The Herald that, while he wants MUP to be a success, “some unhappy Scots, finding their favourite tipple out of reach, may simply reach for the painkillers”.

If he’s correct, more children may be taken into care, rather than have their “life chances” expanded.

I’ve said it before: unless we take radical steps to tackle the causes of alcohol dependency we will never make major progress in the battle against alcohol misuse.

That view would appear to be shared by Dr Colvin: “If [MUP’s] not dealing with the underlying problem [of despair] there’s a potential for the problem just to change into an opioid problem or something worse.”

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Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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