Too early to assess the impact of MUP

An initial report showing falling sales is far from conclusive

MUP came into force in May 2018

TRADE groups and licensing lawyers have cautioned against a rush to judgement on Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) after a fall in off-trade alcohol sales, despite Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman hailing it as a “promising start to our world-leading action to introduce minimum unit pricing”.

The 2019 Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy (MESAS) report, published last week by NHS Health Scotland, found that Scots bought less alcohol in the off-trade (where 73% of all alcohol is sold) in 2018 than any year since records began in 1994. The research claimed this amounted to a drop in sales equivalent to 19 units per adult per week, which it said coincided with the biggest annual increase in the average price of off-trade alcohol (rising 9%).

However, the causality of the introduction of MUP, which came into force on May 1, 2018 and is currently set at 50p a unit, and its link to declining off-trade sales was also called into question in the report itself, which acknowledged a drop in sales overall in Scottish supermarkets and off-sales since 2010. It also stated that the research covers the 2018 calendar year – a four-month pre- and eight-month post-MUP period.

Jack Cummins of Hill Brown Licensing said the figures were “being spun” by advocates of MUP.

He said: “Some have said that consumption has fallen following minimum pricing and that’s palpably not true because it’s been falling anyway. It’s early days; we might find that MUP is working but the MESAS figures are just being spun.”

Paul Waterson of the SLTA said that while it has long been in favour of the policy it is “still too early to tell if the reductions that we’ve seen are due to minimum pricing or another factor”.

He added: “Those that are against MUP will say it’s making no difference, likewise those that support it will say ‘yes, that’s all down to this’. A lot of the problems, we [the on-trade] have encountered with legislation and alcohol abuse problems stems from the fact that supermarkets were giving [alcohol] away as far as I’m concerned.”

Stephen McGowan, head of licensing at TLT solicitors, said more impartial research is required.

“Trends affecting alcohol sales are complex and nuanced,” he said. “Whether you support MUP or not, binary headlines do not help and a rush to judgement is foolhardy.”

The Scottish Beer & Pub Association’s Brigid Simmonds said: “While a reduction in overall alcohol sales may suggest an impact, we would urge the government to continue to monitor the policy and resist contaminating the results by introducing more whole-population approaches to alcohol policy.”