THE World Health Organisation has praised "robust evidence" for minimum unit pricing on alcohol, but said it must be tied to inflation for the benefits to last.

In a report analysing the links between alcohol pricing and health, the agency said MUP is reduces health inequalities because it "effectively targets the cheap, high-strength products that drive these inequalities"

It also referred to a recent United Kingdom study which "estimated that 68 per cent of total alcohol sales revenue came from the 25% of the adult population exceeding current drinking guidelines".

The WHO noted that Scotland and Wales are the only countries with an MUP that applies across all products, while Scotland is also the country where a ban on multi-buy discounts covers all types of alcohol - not just spirits.

It describes initial evidence on MUP from Scotland as "promising" in terms of cutting alcohol consumption, but stresses that over time "inflation may erode the effective level at which the MUP is set".

It adds: "Policymakers may therefore wish to consider indexing MUP to inflation or putting an alternative mechanism in place to periodically review the level at which MUP is set and uprate it where necessary."

In Scotland, MUP was set at 50 pence per unit 10 years ago before finally being introduced in 2018.

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It is not linked automatically to inflation, but is due to be reviewed at the end of this year.

Dr Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and a contributor to the WHO report, said: "We were satisfied with 50 pence as a starting point.

"But we do think - and this applies to any fiscal intervention - that it needs to keep up with wages and prices through some sort of automatic mechanism. We're keen to see that happen."

The Republic of Ireland, which has passed but not yet implemented minimum pricing, has set a floor price equivalent to around 73 pence per unit, as have Australia's Northern Territories where it is $1.30AU per unit (73 pence).

Dr Rice, a psychiatrist and consultant to WHO Europe, said he fears lockdown will have hit problem drinkers hardest, after retailers reported spikes in alcohol sales.

"The best indicators suggest that overall consumption has probably come down, and that the increase in off-trade sales hasn't offset the closure of pubs and bars," he said.

"But it may be that drinking has become more polarised in that existing heavy drinkers are drinking more heavily at home."

The WHO report said that MUP should also go hand-in-hand with increases in tax - ideally in a duty escalator model.

It notes that since the abolition of the duty escalator in the UK 2014, duty rates on beer and spirits "have been frozen or cut almost every year, increasing the affordability of alcohol, and alcohol-specific death rates have risen by 7%".

It adds: "Whilst other economic factors have been in play over the period since 2008, including the global financial crash, it seems likely that the duty escalator played a role in reducing alcohol-related harm while it was in place."

But it is also critical of the EU for preventing members states from taxing wine and cider according to their alcohol content, saying this "substantially compromises [their ability] to implement alcohol taxation systems which can most effectively reduce harm".

READ MORE: Minimum pricing sees alcohol consumption fall 

Under the policy, wine must be taxed at the same rate regardless of whether it is 8.5% or 15% strength.

Dr Rice said: "That's an EU regulation. We're members of the European Alcohol Policy Alliance and that's consistently raised, but member state interests and political forces have just made it impossible to get any change.

"The other big anomaly there is cider. A 6% cider will pay considerably less tax than a 6% beer. That was one of the reasons why white ciders became such as big issue.

"These are the kinds of things that we would like to see rectified. It's a very complex and illogical system."

The UK Government has announced a post-EU exit alcohol review.

A spokesman for the Treasury said it will issue a call for evidence later this year, adding: "We will consider the public health implications of potential reforms through that review.”

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick welcomed the WHO report, but said linking minimu pricing to inflation "may be too simplistic".

He said: “The MUP evaluation programme reported recently that it was associated with a net reduction of between 4% and 5% in off-trade alcohol sales per adult in its first year.

"Furthermore, the latest annual statistics showed the total volume of alcohol sales per adult in Scotland in 2019 remained at its lowest level since 1994 – for the second year running.

“We continue to keep the level of minimum price under review, and will consider all relevant emerging evidence.

"A range of factors, including people’s incomes, need to be taken into account when reviewing the level.

"It is the affordability of alcohol that matters and linking MUP solely to inflation may be too simplistic.

“We remain committed to preventing and tackling alcohol-related harm in Scotland, and will continue to keep population health at the forefront of our consideration on MUP.

“The Scottish Government has, over a number of years, called for a review of the UK alcohol duty system, which we believe should be reformed in order to better reflect product strength.”