Minimum Unit Pricing – a silver bullet against alcohol-related harm?
In May 2018, the Scottish Government introduced a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) on alcohol of 50p. Change Grow Live welcomed this bold move and have been calling upon the UK Government to consider something similar for several years.
The best evidence available is from The Foundation for Liver Research who in their 2017 study ‘Financial case for action on liver disease’ gave clear calculations showing that if a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol were introduced in England, this would translate to 1,150 fewer deaths to drink within five years, as well as 74,500 fewer admissions to hospital because of alcohol. This would equate to a £326m saving to the NHS and a £711m drop in the criminal costs caused by alcohol consumption.
In response to these findings, in many ways the better question would be “why wouldn’t you follow the evidence and support MUP”.
Of course the introduction of MUP is not a silver bullet that will cure the country of all alcohol related ills, it will not mean that every individual will drink less and it is unlikely to impact the drinking behaviour of some of the most entrenched and vulnerable cohorts. But then it’s not supposed to do that.
It’s supposed to work at a population level and promote wider public health outcomes. We know that price influences purchasing and consuming behaviours. Indeed pricing has been used for decades, for example the introduction of pricing for plastic bags in most shops has led to significant reductions and the rising costs of cigarettes has led to reduced smoking rates. Recently, the government has also accepted the argument for a sugar tax.
The other criticism of the introduction of MUP is the price point at which it has been fixed – is 50p per unit really the right point to impact upon people’s behaviour and therefore consumption? We don’t really know is the answer. It will certainly push up the price of some of the ‘super strength’ beers and ciders which are implicitly at least marketed to some of the most vulnerable members of society and which wreak havoc amongst those communities. In following the evidence, we would expect the level to be reviewed regularly and amended accordingly – but this must be linked to health benefits explicitly and not become a backdoor increase in Excise Duty.
This seems to me to be an area when doing this potentially brings significant health benefits – doing nothing should not be an option when we know the costs to the health of the nation and the cost to our economy are so high.
But the introduction of MUP does not negate the need for a national alcohol strategy that will include: education, health promotion, harm reduction and much, much wider access to treatment.