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Minimum unit pricing in England is back under consideration

Minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol could now be enforced in England after Scotland’s pricing regulations were rolled out last week, according to an MP.

Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, junior health minister Steve Brine said health officials carry out a “review of the evidence for minimum unit price in England,” as part of the government’s commitment to tackling problem drinking.

“That’s why we are developing a new alcohol strategy,” he said.

Scotland became the first country to introduce an MUP of 50p on alcohol on 1 May, six years after the law was first passed.

Scottish ministers have said that a minimum price would help tackle Scotland’s “unhealthy relationship with drink” by raising the price of cheap, high-strength alcohol.

However, the government faced strong opposition from the drinks industry. Since 2012, it has been challenged in court by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) which lost its final appeal in the Supreme Court in November 2017.

MUP was initially proposed in England in 2012, but the government’s plans were crapped just over a year later after a fierce backlash from the industry derailed their plans.

At the time Gavin Hewitt, then chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, highlighted the potential problems such a move would have created under European law by pointing to the situation in Scotland, where minimum pricing remains on the agenda.

“Several EU member states and the European Commission have expressed concerns about the legality and effectiveness of the proposals for minimum unit pricing in Scotland, which we will continue to oppose,” Hewitt said, despite an Edinburgh court dismissing the claims.

What happens next?

Brine told MPs on Tuesday that, when the government first reviewed MUP in 2013, their findings were “not entirely conclusive,” but will keep the policy under review in light of Scottish lawmakers’ success in enforcing the ruling.

“We will be watching that like a hawk,” he said.

In response to Lords questions on 28 February 2018, the Government said that we should see the effects of MUP “in two to three years,” according to a white paper on the impacts of minimum pricing published in March.

However the drinks industry is just as concerned with the outcome of MUP. Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, told the drinks business last week that it will “rigorously” monitor the effects of a 50p per unit pricing.

“WSTA’s retailer members have invested significant time and resource to ensure they will be fully compliant with the new regulations in time for the deadline,” he said.

“It is vital therefore that the impact of on businesses and on consumers of the MUP experiment in Scotland is rigorously and objectively monitored and evaluated over time.”

Similarly, Tim Stainer of The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) said that the new ruling “needs to be closely monitored in order to make sure that moderate drinkers aren’t increasingly penalised.”

If the price of alcohol in supermarkets raised the price of the average shopping bag beyond a family’s budget, Stainer said, MUP “could potentially damage pub goers’ pockets should anti-alcohol campaigners call for a higher unit price.”

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