Architects of MUP will double down when they should fold
HERE is my confident new year prediction – for 2020: the minimum unit price (MUP) for the sale of alcohol will rise from the current 50p to at least 60p.
That would hike the base price for a 70cl bottle of whisky from £14.00 to £16.80; the same quantity of vodka would rise from a minimum price of £13.13 to £15.75; and a 13% ABV bottle of wine (75cl) would cost no less than £5.85.
Why am I confident? There are four clear, compelling reasons.
Firstly, let’s look at the alcohol sales figures for the first six months following the introduction of MUP.
While there was a 14% rise in the value of purchases (no surprise there), the volume of purchases increased by 4%.
The hot summer weather and the World Cup may have had some impact – lager sales from off-trade outlets jumped by 18% over the same period last year – but sales of wine were up by 4.5% and spirits by 9%.
In England and Wales, there is of course no constraint on pricing (except that alcohol cannot be sold below cost plus VAT). The corresponding figures are increases of 8% (value) and 7% (volume).
Colin Angus, a researcher at Sheffield University’s Alcohol Research Group – commissioned by the Scottish Government to predict the effects of MUP – told The Herald newspaper that, but for MUP, the rise in Scotland might have been bigger.
That’s what I call putting a brave face on it.
Secondly, when the 50p unit price was set, there were complaints that the figure was too low.
Thirdly, the Scottish Government’s recently-published refreshed Alcohol Framework confirms a commitment to monitor the figure and has promised a review of the unit price after May 1, 2020.
And fourthly, there is absolutely no question of MUP failing.
There’s a so-called “sunset clause” in the legislation. After five years the Scottish Government is obliged to publish a report on the operation of MUP; and by the end of the sixth year the measure lapses unless renewed.
You can be absolutely sure that at this point a Scottish minister will not be saying, “Well, it was a bold experiment, but it failed”.
Instead, it’s likely that the unit price will continue to rise, while measures – such as marketing restrictions – will be deployed to push its “success” over the line.
On any view, the good weather and World Cup don’t explain rocketing sales of Buckfast – a product untouched by MUP. Over the six-month period, the fortified wine achieved a sales boost of an extra 3630 bottles a day.
As to the suggestion that the royal wedding may have boosted the alcohol market, the image of Scots toasting Harry and Meghan with a caffeinated alcoholic drink doesn’t come easily to mind.
By comparison – and unsurprisingly – Frosty Jack’s cider has all but disappeared from the shelves.
So, while the claimed benefits of MUP rest on a so-called “model-based appraisal” carried out by Sheffield University academics, it seems to me that the doubters’ forecasts of product and substance displacement are already turning out to be more accurate.
In fact, Aidan O’Neill QC, representing the Scotch Whisky Association, told the UK Supreme Court that MUP ignored “the problem of Buckfast alley”.
The absolute very best that can be said for the Scottish Government’s flagship measure is this: it’s early days.
Yet, although we’re over four years away from the final evaluation results, those who call for the introduction of MUP in England remain confident that Westminster has fallen behind in the war against alcohol abuse.
A leading medical journal, The Lancet, claims that, “Results from the introduction of MUP in Scotland… are likely to seriously expose the weakness of England’s position”.
It also suggests that alcohol consumption in the UK was “escalating”…
But here’s a fact check: the overall trend is one of decline. And according to the Office for National Statistics, the 2017 rate of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland had dropped by 21% since 2001.
Once again it seems that, in the war against alcohol, factual accuracy is a primary casualty.
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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