Alcohol minimum unit pricing is a policy that divides opinion. As part of our Scotland & Alcohol series, we asked two of our writers to put the case for and against increasing the price of drink. Here, Rebecca McQuillan argues the Scottish Government policy saves lives. While Kevin Mckenna argues the opposite

Alcohol is an intrinsic part of Scottish culture and that doesn’t look like changing. We tend to associate it with relaxation, friendship and fun.

But we all know the less talked-about side, the sickening side, the one that doesn’t feature on the beer ads. Many of us, myself included, have known friends or relatives to die because of alcohol. And we know other people whom we worry are heading that way.

These are the people for whom unsafe drinking is habitual - the friend who drinks every night, or the guy who knocks back two pints of lager in the time it takes everyone else to finish one.

Scottish Government data shows that in 2021, people in Scotland bought enough booze for everyone aged 16 or over to drink more than 18 units a week, the equivalent of two bottles of wine. That’s 36 bottles of spirits per adult, per year.

The Herald: Alcohol consumptionAlcohol consumption (Image: free)

Given that many people drink much less than that, a lot must routinely be drinking far more.

It's these people - the ones who drink at hazardous levels, of whom there are around a million in Scotland - that the minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol policy was principally aimed at when introduced in 2018. The purpose was to save them from harm by reducing the amount they drank, while reducing the harm alcohol causes to the population as a whole. Those living in deprived communities, it was hoped, would benefit the most.

It has worked. Last summer, Public Health Scotland (PHS) published its final independent evaluation of the policy. It’s worth just reminding ourselves that this was no back-of-the prescription pad job. Key data was published in The Lancet. Forty research publications were used, looking at a host of things, from health harms to crime. The evidence showed MUP had cut deaths that are directly attributable to alcohol consumption by an estimated 13.4 per cent and hospital admissions by 4.1%. These findings are echoed in anecdotal evidence from hospital staff. The groups to benefit most were those who suffer most from alcohol-related harm: men, and people living in the most deprived areas.

SCOTLAND & ALCOHOL: Find the full list of articles here

KEVIN MCKENNA: Minimum unit pricing shows the SNP at its most blinkered

READ MORE: How does minimum unit pricing work for alcohol in Scotland?

Harmful drinking, let’s remember, also contributes to other serious diseases, like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Further deaths from these causes have also been averted, campaigners stress.

Overall there was a three per cent reduction in alcohol consumption across the population. The greatest reductions were seen in those households that bought the most alcohol.

All of this was predictable and predicted. The MUP policy wasn’t conceived by some idealistic SNP researcher. It was based on robust evidence that making cheap, strong booze more expensive cuts consumption.

This policy has been subjected to particularly high scrutiny, principally because of the fierce opposition it met from the alcohol industry. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) held up implementation for six years with a legal challenge which it lost. How many more lives might have been saved without that legal challenge?

The Herald: The changing price of alcoholThe changing price of alcohol (Image: free)

The SWA suggested that the policy would “undermine” the alcohol industry.

Not so. The PHS evaluation found that there was no evidence one way or the other of MUP having an impact on the alcohol industry. Nor was there evidence of increased drug use or crime.

A majority of voters are either in favour or neutral (43% back it, 18% are neutral), so you might think the MUP would no longer be subject to challenge.

But the naysayers are out again, opposing Scottish Government plans to continue MUP and uprate it. The 50p current price per unit has been eroded by general inflation, so ministers want to raise the MUP to 65p. That may sound significant but the cost of many drinks won’t be affected as they are already sold at above this limit: most whisky, vodka, gin and wine sold in supermarkets for instance. But it will increase the cost of cheap, high-strength products.

But wait a moment, opponents say, deaths from drinking have actually gone up.

They have. There has been an increase in alcohol deaths in the last few years. But how much does that tell us about the MUP? Not much. The pandemic introduced significant new unforeseen risks. The increase in deaths is likely caused by an increase in unsafe drinking when people were confined to their homes and a parallel reduction in access to support services for them.

We have to consider how things might have been without the MUP. PHS found “strong evidence” that the MUP has reduced deaths and hospital admissions wholly attributable to alcohol “compared to what would have happened in the absence of MUP”. The rise in alcohol-related deaths after the pandemic was sharper in England than Scotland.

MUP was never going to tackle alcohol health harms by itself. Those who are dependent on alcohol are unlikely to drink less due to small increases in price, and this was always understood. Those men and women urgently require well-funded, readily available support, rehabilitation and treatment services and there is deep concern among campaigners that not enough is available. Alongside uprating MUP, the Scottish Government must boost services for this group.

Those who decry the MUP sometimes argue that the key to tackling alcohol-related harm is “personal responsibility” – education, in other words, rather than price interventions.

The Herald: Minimum pricing has reduced alcohol-related hospital admissionsMinimum pricing has reduced alcohol-related hospital admissions (Image: PA)

Well, let’s be careful not to mistake the self-serving assertions of vested interests for objective, evidence-led arguments. Giving people clear information is indeed key, but patently not enough.

All the illness and accidents, crimes, and loss of productive capacity in the workforce caused by alcohol costs the Scottish economy billions, and the personal and social cost is grim. Pre-pandemic, 17% of children were living with at least one parent who exhibited harmful drinking behaviour. The level is probably higher now.

The deaths, illness, domestic violence, broken relationships, insecure childhoods: alcohol isn’t just a bit of fun. The MUP is a world-leading piece of legislation that’s reducing health harms. Who in their right mind would push back against it just because cheap booze will cost a wee bit more?

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