Why Have Minimum Alcohol Pricing?

Scotland is poised to become the first country in the world to charge a minimum price per unit of alcohol. The unanimous ruling by the UK Supreme Court to back the Scottish Government proposal quashes a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), allowing authorities to proceed with legislation that was initially approved five years ago.

So what does this mean for those buying alcohol in Scotland? And will it spread to the rest of the UK?

What is minimum pricing? The proposal aims to charge 50p per unit of alcohol and improve public health in Scotland, which has one of the world’s highest alcohol consumption levels per head. Particularly targeted are cheaper own brand products of high strength such as alco-pops, cider, vodka and whisky.

With prices around Scotland found to be as low as 18p per unit of alcohol, what will the new pricing structure mean for some of the most popular drinks?

  • Alco-pops – 700ml bottle @ 4% ABV = 2.8 units = £1.40 minimum price
  • Lager – 4x400ml cans = 1.6 litres @ 4% ABV = 7 units = £3.50 minimum price
  • Red Wine – 750ml bottle @ 12.5% ABV = 9.5 units = £4.50 minimum price
  • Vodka – 700ml bottle @ 37.5% ABV = 26 units = £13 minimum price
  • Whisky – 700ml bottle @ 40% ABV = 28 units = £14 minimum price

However, the minimum pricing strategy will see blanket coverage across all alcohol genres. The Scotch Whisky Association’s challenge focused on their products, such as Scotch blended and single malt whiskies, seeing the largest increases and being potentially priced out of the market. They claimed that the proposal breaches European Law. The judges at the Supreme Court ruled that it does not.

“We will now look to the Scottish and UK governments to now support the industry, which employs over 10000 people in Scotland, against the negative effects of trade barriers being raised in overseas markets that discriminate against Scotch whisky as a consequence of minimum pricing,” says Karen Betts, the chief executive at the SWA.

Many believe the move to be highly necessary to tackle Scotland’s drinking reputation and poor record of alcohol-related illness. Research shows that Scots purchased 20% more alcohol than elsewhere in the UK. All shops, supermarkets, bars, pubs and restaurants will now be required to charge the minimum of 50p per unit.

“This is a historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol,” says Shona Robinson, Scotland’s health minister, “The UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy.”

Others believe that most consumers will simply keep buying their beer, wine and spirits despite the new pricing structure as the drinking culture is so heavy and engrained. Essentially – if they want it, they will buy it (as we see when duty of VAT levels rise on alcohol) and personal ‘will power’ is more important.

But surely something has to be done to tackle alcoholism, binge drinking, underage drinking and alcohol-related death, which alarmingly rose by 10% in Scotland in 2016. Steps have already been taken with the introduction of lower drink-driving limits and a ban on multi-buy offers and irresponsible ‘happy hour style’ drink promotions in pubs. Will minimum pricing really stop people drinking more and improve Scotland’s public health?

The legislation will now proceed on a six-year trial with the hope that it will have a similar effect as that shown by the smoking ban on reducing the level of people taking up or continuing to smoke.

Some are annoyed at the Scotch Whisky Association and claim that they are simply being selfish for challenging the proposal. The five-year delay since the original legislation was passed has left supporters of the scheme wondering many lives could have been helped and saved in that time.

“In the first year alone we will prevent an estimated 60 alcohol-related deaths, 1600 hospital admissions and 3500 crimes, ” states Alison Douglas, the chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. “The SWA have pursued this case until the bitter end and have relentlessly put their pursuit of profit over the health of Scots.”

So what will happen in the rest of the UK? Will it follow Scotland as it did with the smoking ban? A similar plan for England was shelved in 2013 after heavy opposition from the drinks industry but remains ‘under review’ according to The Home Office. The National Assembly of Wales is ‘actively considering’ a similar move, while the situation in Northern Ireland is even less clear following the resignation of one of the key lobbyists – health minister Jim Wells.

One thing is for sure – after this landmark decision the debate will be reignited. Other countries around the world will undoubtedly sit up, take note and watch with interest as Scotland implements the scheme. That can only be a good thing, just like the 50p minimum pricing per unit and the predicted effects of it.