Justification for MUP has failed by Philip Kolvin QC

Articles

Almost certainly, in imposing minimum unit pricing (MUP) on its citizens, the Scottish government was unmindful of the opinion of Nikita Kruschev that economics is a subject that does not greatly respect one’s wishes. To that opinion, we must now add econometrics, whose practitioners, it now seems, are not necessarily very good at predicting the behaviour of addicted drinkers. Who knew?

We know this now because Public Health Scotland has just published a 350-page report on the impact of MUP on those drinking at harmful levels, the conclusions of which stand in diametric opposition to previous forecasts. I have read (most of) it, so you don’t have to. 

First, however, let’s recap. All the way back in 2009, the University of Sheffield published its study commissioned by the Scottish Government on the likely impact of MUP in Scotland. It pointed out that Scottish people drank more per head than English people, and that the more you drink, the worse your health outcomes, with greater harms among deprived populations.

From that, it was a short hop to the econometric conclusion that if you charge addicts more per unit, they will drink less and so live longer, healthier lives. They even put a number on it: over the first 20 years of a 50p MUP, there would be precisely 2,036 fewer deaths and 38,859 fewer hospitalisations. Trebles all round, as one shouldn’t say.

Loins duly girded, the Scottish Government passed legislation to put MUP into effect, kicking off the Whiskey Wars – a Homeric journey through the courts of the Unions (both British and European), culminating before an unusually-constituted seven-person Supreme Court, all about whether the new laws offended free trade principles in the Euro Treaty. Life is too short to recount the ins and outs. Suffice to say, the Scotch Whiskey Association lost, the Government won, and MUP was unleashed on the Scottish population in 2018. 

Fast forward four years. The new report, Evaluating the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland on people who are drinking at harmful levels, is of unimpeachable pedigree. Its authors are drawn from respectable institutions across four separate nations, and the work systematic, thorough, evidential and detailed. The conclusions come undiluted.

When it comes to harmful drinkers, at whom MUP policy is, after all, directed, the findings are unequivocal. They have not reduced their intake but have maintained it by switching from cider to spirits, cutting back on food and energy consumption and borrowing. Crucially, it reads: “There is no clear evidence that MUP led to an overall reduction in alcohol consumption among people drinking at harmful levels or those with alcohol dependence.”  

Furthermore, the study uncovered no evidence of changes in the general health of harmful drinkers. For balance, it is right to point out that the report confirms that those other than harmful drinkers (particularly the largest-purchasing households) have reduced their consumption, and there is yet hope that MUP may prevent future cases of alcohol dependence in younger generations. However, that is small beer when judged against the avowed purpose of the MUP legislation. 

In short, the justification for the legislation has failed. Technically, the conclusion is that there is low price elasticity in relation to alcohol among harmful drinkers. More colloquially, addicts are addicted. Help may lie elsewhere: it does not lie in artificial price-hikes, particularly when these unnecessarily deplete the disposable income of the non-addicted majority in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

Just as you don’t eat dinner on a table without legs, when the key reason for a policy disappears, the logic is that the policy must go too. Whether Holyrood will so readily admit that its experiment has failed remains to be seen. The industry and consumers are watching.

Philip Kolvin QC is a licensing expert and Patron of the Institute of Licensing

First published in Propel info