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The Scottish Government sought to become a trendsetter with its introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in 2018. It was the policy that they believed others would follow suit in implementing. Two years later, Wales has duly introduced a similar system. With two home nations currently pursuing minimum unit pricing, can it be said that this is a proportionate response to a real domestic issue, or simply punishment for the majority?

Minimum unit pricing forces the retailer to sell alcohol at a floor price, which is in accordance with the alcohol content of the drink. As set by their respective governments, the minimum price per unit of alcohol in both Scotland and Wales now sits at 50p. As a result, one of the more prolific wines commonly associated with binge drinking in Scotland, “Frosty Jacks”, has increased in price from £3.50 to £11.25 due to its alcohol content.

The primary reason why this law has been introduced is because if an individual were to abuse alcohol, they would be more likely to do so with something very affordable from the shelves. Therefore, the logic behind this law suggests that hiking the prices of cheap alcohol would act as a deterrent for those most vulnerable at purchasing and abusing it, to successfully reduce alcohol related deaths due to the existing observable link between cheap booze and alcohol harm. 

So, two years from its initial implementation in Scotland, how has the legislation played out in reality? Despite its youth, early reports and publications from the Scottish Government suggest that following its immediate implementation in 2018, alcohol sales in Scotland did indeed drop. Figures would show that the volume of alcohol sold per person decreased by 3.6%, declining from 7.4 litres to 7.1 litres with the heaviest drinkers being the most affected. However, full statistics are not expected until after the first five years of its introduction. 

Yet, was the overall aim to reduce alcohol consumption of the general public? Not entirely, if at all. It is important to remember that the policy was implemented with the goal of reducing alcohol related harm and death. Taking this into account, it is therefore interesting to note that alcohol related death in Scotland increased by 1.4% over the year of which the policy was first implemented, when the widely referenced Sheffield alcohol pricing model had predicted 58 fewer deaths following implementation. Likewise, for the first full year that the policy was implemented, the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions instead rose too.

While a reduction in consumption may be welcome for countries with deeply ingrained alcohol problems such as Scotland, the positive nature of the reduction is essentially negated by the continued prevalence of the aforementioned alcohol related death and hospital admissions, despite forecasting from the Sheffield alcohol pricing model. Therefore, for the policy to be truly hailed a success, it must show that it makes a genuine impact regarding harm, and not impact purely upon consumption rates. 

Moreover, however long it remains to be legislation, it is without a doubt that those who will be most affected by it will be the majority of moderate drinkers. What this policy does is raise the cost of living for those who want to enjoy cheap alcohol, making it more expensive. Therefore, this policy acts as a form of punishment for everyone, due to the inability of governments to find an effective solution to the problem of alcoholism.

For those that do suffer from problems with alcohol misuse, it must be asked if the price hike that comes hand in hand with minimum unit pricing for alcohol will adequately deter those individuals from buying the alcohol that they desire. In an interview with the BBC, prior to the implementation of the policy in Wales, a recovering alcoholic spoke about her thoughts regarding the policy. She explained her belief that the policy wouldn’t be worth it. Not only did she assert that it wouldn’t have made her think twice about buying alcohol, but she also suggested that there would instead be a rise in crime, as if someone can’t afford it, they will simply steal it. 

With recovering alcoholics arguing that the policy will not be as effective as what is suggested, perhaps nanny-statist, punitive policies such as minimum unit pricing for alcohol are not the answer to reducing the level of harm caused by alcohol. Instead, governments should invest in publicly available alcohol and substance abuse services. By supporting health and social care partnerships as well as alcohol and drug partnerships, alcoholism can be targeted directly at the source throughout local communities, instead of a widespread and disproportionate price rise.  

Investments should be made in research to allow for more direct effective methods of action and intervention to be brought forward and, importantly, improvements should be made in education for adults as well as children throughout the school curriculum regarding the effects of alcohol abuse. This would ensure there is an existing exposure to the harsh realities of addiction. Individuals at risk of harm from alcohol abuse need to have essential tools at hand to help themselves, something that price rises cannot offer.  

Only time will tell how minimum unit pricing for alcohol will develop and impact levels of alcohol abuse, substantially, or not so. With current trends highlighting no change in harm prevention in Scotland, and potentially similar results to develop from Wales, what should remain clear is that no one will learn how to get better or benefit simply from price hikes in stores, which do nothing but increase the cost of living for the public.

Madeleine is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: U3144362]