When a policy is not allowed to fail

MUP is likely to be hailed a success, whatever the evidence

woman-buying-alcohol
MUP is said to have impacted on sales of cider, but not overall volumes

By Jack Cummins

MINIMUM pricing has been successful in Scotland – that was the confident assessment of media medic Dr Hilary Jones when he was interviewed about alcohol issues on a BBC Radio 2 programme.

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There was just one problem with the Jones verdict: he was speaking around two years before minimum unit pricing (MUP) came into force.

I’m afraid medicine’s Mystic Meg is not alone in a positive assessment of a hotly-debated measure that’s in the very early stages of a five-year evaluation process.

Six months ago, The Lancet – the leading medical journal – contributed to demands for MUP to be introduced in England and Wales, claiming that, “Results from the introduction of MUP in Scotland… are likely to seriously expose the weakness of England’s position”.

Then the British Medical Association chipped in with the assumption that MUP was, without doubt, the best medicine: “The BMA will continue to push for the government to commit to a comprehensive and effective range of population-wide measures such as minimum unit pricing for alcohol…” .

And note the “population-wide” reference.

As I explained before on this page, MUP has been promoted as a means of cutting down alcohol abuse fuelled by cheap, high-strength products – but the overall policy intention is much broader.

So, is it likely that MUP will be effective?

Early data suggests otherwise. At the beginning of April, Nielsen, the data specialist company, found that in the 46 weeks to March 29 the amount of alcohol sold from Scottish off-sale outlets had risen to 203.5 million litres – an increase of 1.8 million litres and equivalent to four million cans of lager.

A total of £1.14 billion has been spent in shops since MUP came into force on May 1, 2018.

That’s £87.6 million more than in the same period in 2017 to 2018.

MUP supporters responded by pointing out, quite reasonably, that the figures only told us about the “natural” volume of alcohol heading over the counter: for example, there was no differentiation between a litre of whisky with an ABV of 40% and a one-litre bottle of a product with a considerably lower ABV.

So, they must have been disappointed when further data – released later in April by research company IRI – supplied the missing information about the number of actual units sold.

This report compared the period between the end of April 2018 and the beginning of February this year with a year earlier.

Not unexpectedly, cider had taken a huge hit from MUP with sales nose-diving by 44.4 million units of alcohol.

That seems to tick the box on what many were led to believe is the policy intention of MUP.

But across all categories, in a comparison of unit sales, Scots bought 25.2 million more units, representing an increase of 1% compared to the previous period.

That figure doesn’t sit at all well with a predicted 3.5% decrease (albeit for a full-year period, rather than nine months).

Despite these clear warning signs that MUP isn’t looking to be effective, I’m with Dr Hilary. It will be successful, beyond any shadow of a doubt.

If the final evaluation results from NHS Health Scotland demonstrate that its purpose hasn’t been achieved, there isn’t the remotest chance that the legislation will be repealed.

“Sorry, we just got this wrong” are not words that will fall from a politician’s mouth.

Instead if, as I expect, the initial data is indicative of a long-term trend, a squeeze will be applied through increases in the minimum unit price.

In fact, Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Holyrood Lib Dem health spokesman, called for the current 50p MUP to be increased to 60p back in February, even before any data was released.


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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