Expect pressure on minimum price

MUP likely to return to the agenda as it reaches five-year milestone

By Jack Cummins

MINIMUM unit pricing (MUP): arguably licensing’s hottest topic for many years.

The highly-controversial measures slipped down the agenda during the pandemic – but expect it to hit the headlines again in the not-too-distant future.

The legislation was passed by the parliament in 2012, but there followed an epic series of court battles involving the Scottish Government and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) before it became “live” on 1st May 2018. After two rounds in the Court of Session, in November 2017 the Supreme Court delivered the knockout blow to the SWA challenge.

In large measure, the government’s ability to get MUP over the finishing line – both in Holyrood and the courts – turned on a so-called “sunset clause”.

It’s clear from the Supreme Court’s decision that it tipped the balance. The Justice delivering the court’s opinion recognised that the position was “essentially unpredictable” but that was catered for by the clause coupled with provisions for a review – “a significant factor in favour of upholding the minimum pricing régime”.

So, what do we know so far about the effect of MUP over the past four years or so – and what happens next?

The most immediate impact was seen in the collapse of super-strength cider sales: products that had cost around £3.50 were swept from the shelves when the price rocketed to £11.25. Supermarket own-label whisky priced at around £11.50 disappeared. But, perhaps ironically, there were also early reports that Buckfast – untouched by MUP – was enjoying a sales boom.

A flurry of sensationalist front-page newspaper reports suggested that Scots were flocking over the border to beat price rises.

I was less than convinced that these “booze cruises” would have any significant impact on purchasing habits.

That view is borne out by a recent Public Health Scotland (PHS) report which found that “cross-border purchasing was infrequent” and “a considerable amount of alcohol would usually be required to make significant savings”.

No surprise there: taking into account travel costs, only Scots living very close to the border are likely to find the effort worthwhile.

Over the past three years or so, PHS has published a series of evaluation reports; but in my estimation drawing any definite conclusions on the efficacy of MUP to date is pretty much impossible. It does, however, seem clear that the intervention of the pandemic resulted in an overall decline in alcohol consumption but those drinking at hazardous levels increased their drinking.

There’s a really important factor at play here.

Those drinking at harmful levels had reduced access to hospital treatment during the pandemic, while those with associated mental health problems were likely to find that support had all but dried up. According to PHS, higher rates of mortality may have resulted.

I say – once again – that the expense and effort involved in MUP would have been better deployed in ramping up resources to help those afflicted with potentially life-threatening alcohol addiction.

What’s on the horizon?

The sunset clause provisions terminate MUP six years after it came into force unless it’s extended by the parliament. After five years, Scottish ministers are required to produce an evaluation report.

Back in May 2020, before COVID-19 had properly tightened its grip, healthy lobbyists were calling for further measures to reduce alcohol harms as part of the pandemic recovery programme.

According to a spokesman for SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems), we should be “regaining the momentum with policies”, building on pre-pandemic progress.

Expect much more pressure of that sort as we move towards the five and six-year marker points.

Finally, what about the unit price?

It was set at 50 pence and predicted to rise during the evaluation period. That hasn’t happened, of course, and you might think that in the current economic climate any increase in the foreseeable future would be politically unacceptable.

Nevertheless, Alcohol Focus Scotland is now arguing for a rise to 65 pence – which would take the floor price of a typical blended whisky (70cl) from £14 to £18.20.