MINIMUM pricing on alcohol is cutting consumption among the heaviest drinkers, with reductions in off-trade purchases well ahead of expectations in the first months after the policy came into force.

That is the conclusion today of a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) which adds to evidence that Scotland's decision to become the first country in the world pursue minimum unit pricing, at a rate of 50 pence per unit, is working.

Researchers at Newcastle University used information collected by Kantar Worldpanel, a consumer database comprising of 30,000 British households which provides a detailed breakdown on number of occupants, demographics and shopping habits, including all take-home alcohol purchases.

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Thousands of households in Scotland were analysed over a four-year period, before and for the first eight months after minimum pricing was introduced on May 1 2018. They were compared against thousands of households in England - where MUP is not in place - as a control.

Overall, MUP has corresponded with a reduction of 9.5g in the amount of alcohol purchased on average - per adult, per household, per week - in Scotland. That is the equivalent of slightly over one unit, or roughly half a pint of beer.

The fact that that sounds insignificant is part of the reason researchers believe the policy is working: the majority of the population appear to be largely unaffected.

In fact, when households were split into five categories ranging from those who bought the least amount of alcohol from supermarkets and off-sales to those who bought the most, there was virtually no change in purchasing habit among the first four groups.

By far, it was the highest consuming households that cut back on buying alcohol - accounting for a weekly drop of around 15g per adult.

The study noted that the reduction was greater in "lower income households and only occurred in the top fifth of households by income that purchased the greatest amount of alcohol".

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However, the authors also stress that while the impact of MUP was "greater on lower as opposed to higher income households, changes in weekly expenditure were not systemically related to household income but rather with increasing household purchases of alcohol".

In other words, the evidence suggests it is neither penalising moderate drinkers on lower incomes nor leaving heavy drinkers at the top end of the salary scale untouched.

As research from the Scottish Health Survey reiterated this week, it is the wealthiest middle class drinkers who are - on average - likeliest to consume alcohol in potentially harmful or hazardous quantities. They are the least likely to be non-drinkers and one in four exceeds the recommended 14 unit limit every week, compared to 18% in the poorest communities.

Yet at the same, time we also know that extreme, heavy drinking - such as 47 units per week for men - is more common at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, and that the heaviest drinkers also tend to consume greater quantities of the strongest, cheapest alcoholic beverages.

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Notably, th BMJ study found the largest reductions in consumption were for beer, spirits and cider.

The authors state: "Given that these categories include own-brand spirits and high strength white ciders that MUP sought to target, our data suggest that the policy has achieved its ambition to make relatively cheap and strong alcohol less affordable, which in turn should positively impact public health over time."

The public health benefits could also exceed expectations. Before the policy was introduced, modelling predicted that it would result in 2,036 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 38,859 alcohol-related hospital admissions over the first 20 years compared to a Scotland without MUP.

However, that was predicated on an annual reduction in alcohol consumption per drinker of around 3.5% . In contrast, the BMJ study found that MUP has coincided with a 7.6% reduction - 2.2 times what was estimated.

Of course, alcohol purchased in bars and restaurants is not covered by the research - but since heavier drinkers tend to get a larger share of their intake from off-sales, and MUP had no effect on on-trade prices, it is unlikely to have changed significantly.

Nonetheless, Dr Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said it was still too early to say with certainty that MUP had worked or was "some kind of magic bullet for alcohol harms".

He said: "It's really important to keep emphasising that this looks good, we expected it to be moving in this direction based on all of the modelling and based on the evidence from Canada. But we do have to wait and see."

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “The policy was designed to effectively target the most harmful drinkers who buy most of the cheapest, strongest alcohol. It’s heartening to see that MUP appears to be encouraging the heaviest drinkers to cut down and is having a minimal effect on household budgets.

“There is every reason to remain confident that the benefits from MUP will continue to build."