Scotland becomes first country to implement minimum unit price for alcohol
A minimum alcohol unit price of 50 pence has come into force in Scotland today, six years after the law was first passed, making it the first country in the world to adopt such a practice.
The minimum unit price (MUP) – which means that a bottle of wine cannot be sold for under £4.69, a four-pack of 500ml beer cans for under £4 and a bottle of whisky for less than £14 – will be enforced in Scotland today (1 May) after the law was first passed in 2012.
Since 2012, however, it has been challenged in court by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) which lost its final appeal in the Supreme Court in November 2017.
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.
In 2016, Alcohol Focus Scotland alleged that the maximum recommended weekly intake of alcohol (14 units) could be bought for just £2.52 in Scotland. It added that high-strength cider and own-brand vodka and whisky could be bought for as little as 18p per unit of alcohol.
The SWA, on the other hand, argued that MUP was illegal under EU law and that it amounted to a “trade barrier” which “is a real concern for our industry”.
The law will hit alcoholic beverages such as white cider particularly hard. While in the past it was possible to purchase a two-litre bottle of strong (7.5% ABV) cider for £2.52, after today’s law chain, the same bottle will cost at least £7.50.
However, pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants are unlikely to be particularly affected, given that the prices they charge are higher than the minimum requirement.
Having achieved a unanimous ruling in the Supreme Court, the Scottish government agreed in February this year that the minimum price on a unit of alcohol would be 50 pence.
MUP is not a tax and additional revenue generated from the higher prices will go to the retailer.
The law has a ‘sunset clause’ meaning that should ministers decide that the measure has not worked, MUP will automatically end in six years.
Today, Scotland becomes the first country in the world to implement minimum unit pricing in an attempt to reduce the significant harm of strong, low cost alcohol. Thanks to all those who have stuck with us through the challenges. This public health policy will save lives.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 1, 2018
First minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “I am extremely proud that the eyes of the world will once again be on Scotland with the introduction of this legislation.
“Our action is bold and it is brave, and shows once again that we are leading the way in introducing innovative solutions to public health challenges.
“It’s no secret that Scotland has a troubled relationship with alcohol. There are, on average, 22 alcohol-specific deaths every week in Scotland, and 697 hospital admissions and behind every one of these statistics is a person, a family, and a community badly affected by alcohol misuse.
“Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum unit pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families”.
Health secretary Shona Robison added: “We know we need to act now to change people’s attitudes towards alcohol and I am confident that, with the introduction of minimum unit pricing, we are moving in the right direction. Alcohol misuse costs Scotland £3.6 billion each year – that’s £900 for every adult in the country.
“Scotland has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the UK – from today, I hope we will see that change”.
In the trade, the decision has been met with both praise and scepticism.
After the ruling last November, Spirits Europe, which supported the plight of the SWA said that the ruling “will distort competition by preventing efficient low-cost producers of alcoholic drinks in other Member States from using that competitive advantage against higher cost producers, without targeting those who drink at harmful levels”.
Joep Stassen, president of Spirits Europe said: “We regret the Supreme Court’s ruling on minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol in Scotland, which we believe is inconsistent with the Court of Justice’s ruling in this case and its wider jurisprudence”.
“We remain convinced there are more appropriate, proportionate and effective responses to tackle harmful use of beer, wine and spirits drinks. We nevertheless accept that MUP will now be introduced in Scotland, and hope to see an objective assessment of its impact both on the harmful use of alcohol and on the ability of cheaper imports to compete in the Scottish market”.
However, Norman Loughery, off-trade sales director at C&C Group, the owner of Tennent’s lager, supports the decision, stating: “Today is a landmark day for Scotland”
“Minimum Unit Pricing is designed to target strong, cheap alcohol, which is linked to harmful drinking. Deaths through alcohol misuse in Scotland are 54% higher than England and Wales and six times higher in the country’s most deprived areas. Heavy drinkers in poverty are at the greatest risk from over-consumption and Minimum Unit Pricing aims to tackle this group specifically.
“We’ve been supporters of Minimum Unit Pricing since it was first proposed in 2011 and have worked closely with the Scottish Government and our customers around its successful implementation”
“We’ve been brewing in Scotland since 1556 and producing cider in Ireland since 1935, and have always held responsible consumption of alcohol as a key priority of our business. We strongly believe that the industry must play its part in tackling alcohol abuse and will therefore continue to work with relevant bodies in the territories in which we operate, including Ireland and Northern Ireland, to seek the introduction of MUP legislation”.
Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, is sceptical and stresses the need for frequent evaluation and reviews of the measure.
He said: “Minimum Unit Pricing has been a very complex and costly measure to introduce. However, 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 today.
The Scottish Government’s policy will increase the price of around half of the alcohol on supermarket shelves and will impact most drinkers, particularly those on lowest incomes. The WSTA’s long held view is that MUP is likely to be ineffective in changing the behavior of problem drinkers. There are also serious questions about the potential impact on cross border trade and illicit alcohol.
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.”
England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Following the implementation of the new law in Scotland, it is thought that some Scots may cross the border into England it pick up cheaper booze.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Christopher Snowdon, the director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, commented: “I would say that Scots will be hopping across the border to buy alcohol that is, in some cases, less than half price. As with booze cruises to France, some will be doing it legally for their own consumption and others will be doing it to sell illegally in Scotland.
“A large and legal online business is likely to emerge to satisfy demand and there is nothing the SNP can do about it. This is their folly and they will have to live with the consequences. For those who live a long way from the English border, we may see a growth in home brewing and home distilling. A rise in drug use is also on the cards as people use substances such as Spice as a substitute for cheap alcohol.”
In terms of introducing a similar move in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), said: “When it comes to reducing alcohol harm, minimum unit pricing is one of the most potent tools we have at our disposal, with numerous studies and international evidence suggesting it can significantly reduce deaths and other health harms.
“We are delighted to see the Scottish Government leading the way with such progressive and responsible public health policy, and to see the other devolved national administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland progressing their own plans for MUP. We hope that the Westminster government will now look to the success of such policies and not leave people in England at a greater risk of harm from irresponsibly cheap, super-strength alcohol”.