IT was a landmark pricing policy designed to transform Scotland's troublesome relationship with alcohol. But nearly six months after minimum unit pricing (MUP) was introduced, a spike in demand for Buckfast has led to claims that problem drinkers are switching from high-strength ciders to the potent tonic wine.

An overall surge in alcohol revenues from off-sales in the months immediately after the pricing policy also triggered criticism that the intervention has done nothing to stem the nation's thirst for the 'demon drink'.

The reality appears to be more complex, however.

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It is true that sales of Buckfast rose by around 17% year-on-year in the first 24 weeks after minimum pricing came into force on May 1, equivalent to drinkers in Scotland snapping up an extra 3,630 bottles of the tonic wine a day.

Over the same period, retail sales of 3-litre bottles of Frosty Jacks - a high-strength white cider which was among the products hardest hit by MUP - have slumped from an average of 240 a day in 2017 to around 24 per day in 2018.

Under minimum pricing, Buckfast was unaffected - continuing to sell for £7.99 per 750ml bottle - while Frosty Jacks price tag shot up from around £3.70 to £11.25.

Simon Russell, spokesman for the Aston Manor Cider, which manufactures Frosty Jacks, said market data points to a "marked shift" in favour of high-strength drinks. Sales of fortified wine in general is up 15% year-on-year.

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Buckfast is twice as alcoholic as Frosty Jacks but now appears cheaper on a bottle-by-bottle comparison, if not in terms of actual volume.

Mr Russell said the basis for MUP is "fatally flawed". He said: "Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, but the focus for MUP seems to be to target white cider. At best this is a distraction as the whole category represents just 0.27% of total alcohol and has been in long-term decline for many years."

He stressed that there was "no such thing as problem drinks, only problem drinkers", adding: "Many people inside and outside the drinks industry predicted that MUP would prompt consumers to switch - both regular and moderate drinkers who don't want to be penalised and dependent drinkers who will displace misuse from one substance to another, i.e. to include prescription and illicit drugs."

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The same market figures, compiled by IRI, show an 18% year-on-year surge in lager sales in supermarkets and other off-licence outlets over the same 24-week period. Sales of wine were up 4.5% and spirits by 9%.

However, these products were not the target for MUP in the first place. With the exception of some own brand spirits, there has been no change in their price and therefore no expectation that sales would decline.

Alcohol Focus Scotland noted that the increases coincided with an unusually hot summer, the World Cup and the royal wedding.

Colin Angus, a researcher at Sheffield University's Alcohol Research Group, which provided modelling to the Scottish Government in relation to MUP predicting that the policy would result in 120 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year, said it was more telling to compare buying patterns in Scotland and England during this period rather than a straight year-on-year comparison.

He said: "A more relevant comparison is to look at alcohol consumption over the same period in England, where MUP is not currently in place.

"Alcohol sales in England rose by substantially more over the same period, suggesting that in the absence of MUP we might have seen a bigger rise in drinking in Scotland.

"As tempting as it is to look for immediate impacts of the policy, this volatility means that the real test of MUP will be in how drinking in Scotland changes over the next few years.

"This new data doesn't mean that MUP isn't working by any means - we just can tell that yet."

Mr Angus added that that despite Buckfast's toxic reputation in the west of Scotland - where it has long been associated with crime and antisocial behaviour - it was less commonly consumed among those struggling with alcoholism.

He said: "The increase in Buckfast sales is striking, but we cannot tell if this is as a result of dependent drinkers switching, or simply increasing popularity of Buckfast in other groups.

"Although commonly associated with problematic youth drinking in the public perception, Buckfast has not historically been drunk in large volumes by dependent drinkers."

Buckfast's distributor, J Chandler, also said sales of the tonic wine "have been increasing over the past tow to three years".

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said: “We’re seeing some evidence that people are switching drinks - that is to be expected - but until the thorough independent evaluation of MUP we won’t be able to see the full effect on consumption and harm.

"The evaluation is currently underway and will provide a complete assessment of its impact on health, crime and the economy."