Minimum unit pricing, which is sometimes called a “floor price” for alcohol, has been the law since it was implemented in 2018. The Scottish Government has recently agreed that the level should be increased, from 50p to 65p per unit. But Parliament has to approve whether the law stays on the statute books at all, as it is currently operating as a trial. It is anticipated that Parliament will vote to make minimum pricing permanent this spring, with the new price due to go live in September 2024.

The debate on whether minimum pricing should be made permanent is centred on a series of some 40-odd studies into whether it has had any effect. The policy intention has been described as two-fold, both a whole population approach, trying to get us to drink less as a nation, and also a targeted approach, addressing health inequalities in those who drink hazardously.

The legal case which ultimately saw the courts approve the law was, however, on the clear basis that the primary intention was to target harmful drinkers and that was one of the reasons, along with the fact it would be a trial, that the courts let it pass.

This is relevant because only one out of all the studies suggests the measure had any discernible impact; the study found that there was a 13.4 per cent reduction in deaths and 4.1 per cent reduction in hospital admissions – but this is not real-world data, it is counterfactual. It is modelling for an alternative reality where the policy was not enacted. In the real world, deaths have gone up. It is on the basis of this one modelling study that the Scottish Government claims the policy has been a success. Other studies, which presented real world data as opposed to speculation, showed no evidence one way or the other.

The Scottish Government’s impact assessments relative to the increase to 65p all say the same thing: there is no evidence of any impact against any metric that the policy had either a positive or negative influence. Given all of this, the Scottish Government’s claim that the policy has been a success seems worthy of scrutiny.

In order to convince the courts that minimum pricing was lawful back in 2018, the Scottish Government specifically stated that the primary goal was not a whole population approach but in fact a targeted approach. That being the case, we must accept that it is the achievements against that goal which are “weighted” for the purposes of the parliamentary assessment as to whether the policy should remain on the statute books.

That being so, the complete absence of evidence of any impact cannot be ignored, and the focus on one modelling study to the exclusion of all others as the barometer of success should give us pause. There may yet be a sting in the tail under the UK Internal Market Act 2020: the law which brought down the Deposit Return Scheme.

The Scottish Government says, in relation to the rise to 65p, that “it seems unlikely that an adverse market effect will arise – but it cannot be discounted on the information available”. Watch this space.

This article was first published in The Scotsman

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Written by

Stephen, McGowan

Stephen McGowan

Date published

05 March 2024


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