SCOTLAND’S minimum alcohol unit pricing has cost drinkers £270 million, according to a new report due to be published tomorrow.

The research, conducted by the right-of-centre think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), found the policy has cost the equivalent of £59.39 per adult since it was introduced four years ago.

It said the sum was significantly more than the £76m projected in models prior to implementation. The IEA’s report also said there is “little evidence” the policy has delivered the intended health and social benefits.

However, its claims have been rejected by the Scottish Government which said the measures reduced alcohol-related deaths before the Covid pandemic began in 2020. Scotland became the first country in the world to bring in minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol in May 2018 in a bid to curb sales of “cheap” alcohol and improve the population’s health. The price of alcohol is currently fixed by the Scottish Government at 50p per unit.

Researchers last year found alcohol sales in Scotland fell by 7.7% after the policy was brought in, when compared with the northeast of England. In Wales, which introduced minimum pricing almost two years after Scotland in March 2020, there was an 8.6% decrease in sales when compared with the west of England.

The research, led by Newcastle University and published in The Lancet Public Health, found: “For both Scotland and Wales, reductions in overall purchases of alcohol were largely restricted to households that bought the most alcohol.”


‘Effective’ policy

IT concluded MUP “is an effective alcohol policy option to reduce off-trade purchases of alcohol and should be widely considered”.

The study looked at data detailing more than 1.24 million separate alcohol sales between 2015 and 2018, and also in the first half of 2020 – with this period covering purchases by 35,000 households. According to the research, the impact of MUP was mainly seen in households that buy the most alcohol. However the exception to this was those in high-purchasing, low-income homes, who did not seem to change their habits.

A separate study by Public Health Scotland, published in June last year, found the biggest changes in sales were for lower-cost drinks such as beer, spirits, cider and perry, while MUP had a “limited effect” on price distribution above 65p per unit, with increases in those price bracket similar to previous years.

Co-author of the report, IEA head of lifestyle economics Christopher Snowdon, said: “Our estimate suggests that minimum pricing has cost Scottish drinkers more than a quarter of a billion pounds.

“Now in its fifth year, minimum pricing is a reminder that politicians are often responsible for the rising cost of living. Although alcohol consumption has fallen slightly in Scotland, we find no evidence that this has led to an improvement in health outcomes. Consumers have simply switched from the most affordable alcohol to mid-range brands, to the benefit of alcohol producers and retailers. The policy could be dropped tomorrow without costing the Government a penny.”

Health experts and charities want the Scottish Government to increase the 50p per unit price. “Although MUP is a very positive measure, we want to see it being uprated to 65p in order to give the measure a few more teeth and to impact on affordability a little bit more”, Elinor Jayne, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems told MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee in March.

“We would also like the MUP to be automatically linked to inflation so that we do not have to go through regular reviews and legal processes to uprate it each time.”

  A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In 2020, we saw total alcohol sales reported as falling to their lowest level for 26 years. We had already seen that alcohol sales were falling since our world-leading policy was introduced in 2018 – indeed research published in the Lancet found alcohol sales fell almost 8%.

“Prior to the pandemic, the reduction in alcohol-specific deaths showed encouraging early signs that the introduction of MUP was having a positive impact.

“Evaluation is ongoing, with a final report from Public Health Scotland in 2023.”