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Scotland tries to gauge impact of MUP

The latest figures on alcohol sales in Scotland have had health campaigners heralding the success of minimum unit pricing but the actual picture is not so clear cut.

The latest report from NHS Scotland’s Monitoring Report, shows that in 2018 9.9 litres of pure alcohol were sold per adult in Scotland, down 3%, so 0.3 litres, from 10.2 litres in 2017.

This is the equivalent of 19 units per adult per week, the lowest level seen in Scotland since records began in 1994.

That said, the volume of pure alcohol sold in Scotland was still 9% higher than in England and Wales – though this too was the smallest difference since 2003.

Scotland’s health secretary, Jeane Freeman, said the results showed the effectiveness of MUP which was introduced on 1 May 2018.

Referencing the latest alcohol deaths and hospital admissions data which refer to 2017, she continued: “There are, on average, 22 alcohol-specific deaths every week in Scotland, and 683 hospital admissions.

“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 harm to so many families.”

Speaking to BBC Scotland, Dr Ewan Forrest of Glasgow Royal Infirmary said it was “probably too early to say” if there had been a reduction in harm caused by alcohol though he hoped “they have moved us in the right direction”.

Many media outlets including the BBCGuardian and Telegraph have led with headlines declaring that alcohol consumption has fallen to its lowest level in Scotland for 25 years following the introduction of MUP.

This is incorrect.

Having only been introduced in May of 2018, the figures from 2018 do not reflect a full year of sales with the new 50p per unit minimum and a report looking at the May 2018-May 2019 figures is expected and may give a fuller picture.

Furthermore, the report looks at sales of alcohol in Scotland not consumption levels.

Several reports post the introduction of MUP from late last year and earlier this year point to a rise in sales of certain alcoholic products because of the way MUP affects alcohol pricing.

So Frosty Jacks cider at 7.5% abv has seen its price balloon to £11.25 per three litre bottle but 75cl bottles of 15% Buckfast tonic wine have seen prices largely unchanged.

A report by The Times in April of this year also pointed to a rise in alcohol sales between 29 March 29 2018 and 2019.

Sales in that period hit 203.5 million litres of alcohol, 1.8m litres more than in the same period in 2017/18.

Last summer’s heatwave, the World Cup and the royal wedding are all thought to have been contributing factors – as they were across the UK.

Last year’s results must also be seen in context of alcohol sales in Scotland over the past decade and more.

As the Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy (MESAS) report pointed out, the volume of alcohol sold per adult in Scotland stabilised at around 11.9 from 2005 to 2009 and then have been in decline since then, dipping noticeable from 2010-2011 and 2014-2015.

This also tallies with a steady decline in the amount of alcohol sold in Scotland below 50p per unit which was as high as 81% in 2008, before dropping to 60% by 2012, 53% by 2013, 51% through 2015 and 2016, 47% in 2017 – largely through anticipation of MUP being introduced and now it just 23% of alcohol is sold below 50ppu.

Off-licence sales remain the key driver of alcohol sales in Scotland, 73% of all alcohol being bought in a supermarket or other licensed premise.

That said, since 2010 the volume of pure alcohol sold per adult through supermarkets and off-licences in Scotland has fallen by 9%.

The number of minors reporting drinking alcoholic beverages on a regular basis has also been in strong decline between 1990 and 2015.

Alcohol-specific deaths from 1981 to 2017 declined strongly between 2006 and 2012 and although there has been a slight rise, particularly among men in deprived areas aged 55-64, it is way off its 2002 peak and much more closely aligned to the death rate in England and Wales.

Rates of driving under the influence were also in decline well before the introduction of MUP. In 2004/05 rates were 21.8 per 10,000 population but in 2017/18 they were 10.8 per 10,000 – although rates have been more or less the same since 2013/14.

In addition, rates of ‘drunkenness and other disorderly conduct’ hit a peak of 80.8 per 10,000 in 2013/14 and then collapsed to 15.9 in 2017/18. The lowest rate at any point “in observed history”.

Alcohol as ‘a factor’ in homicide cases or those reporting themselves as victims of violent crime – even if the crime rates overall are lower than previously – remains high however.

Finally, there is no accounting in the report for sales and consumption of alcohol bought in England and taken north of the border.

The full MESAS report can be read here.

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