Commentary: A more sober Scotland?

One year on from a landmark policy to tackle Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol, Alison Douglas of Alcohol Focus Scotland looks ahead with healthandcare.scot

Tuesday 30th April 2019

Tomorrow marks one year since the Scottish Government introduced a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol.

In a world first, the price was linked to the alcohol content – not the type of drink.

Authorities in Wales, Ireland, and further afield in Australia are now following suit.

In Scotland, MUP was the product of a decade long campaign – very nearly derailed by legal challenges fought in the highest courts of the UK and the EU.

healthandcare.scot’s Henry Anderson spoke to Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland – a charity at the forefront of efforts to get to grips with Scotland’s relationship with alcohol – about the public’s reaction, its effect and the next steps for alcohol regulation.

Ms Douglas explains the first year dispelled many ‘misconceptions’ about the impact on the average drinker:

“MUP is estimated to cost the average moderate drinker £2 a year, which is completely imperceptible to most of us. I think possibly people have been surprised because some of the scaremongering prior to MUP suggested that it would have a profound impact.

“And it doesn’t affect the cost of drinks in pubs and restaurants because they were already well above the minimum unit price. The principal effect has been on the really cheap strong alcohol that is favoured by people who are drinking very high levels.

“Previously we had seen high strength white ciders selling for as little as 18p per unit. Since May last year they have to be sold above 50p per unit, so that’s where the effect has been greatest – and those were the drinks that were favoured by people drinking really heavily.”

Researchers estimated the policy could prevent as many 60 alcohol-related deaths in its first year – rising to 120 a year after it has been in place for 20 years – as well as preventing more than a thousand hospital admissions every year.

Given the harm caused by heavy drinking is concentrated in some of the most deprived areas in Scotland, the policy is forecast to help those in poverty most.

Frustratingly for campaigners and charities like Alcohol Focus Scotland, we still don’t know what the full effect of the policy has been one year on – and Ms Douglas says “it’s going to take some time before we get a really full picture”.

An early indication will come from a monitoring report by Scotland’s public health agency due to be published in the summer - the first indication of whether MUP has “changed how much Scots are drinking”

This will be followed by the first official statistics on alcohol-specific deaths since the implementation of MUP, also expected in the summer.

The Scottish Government, which will review the price in 2020, is already facing calls to increase it further because the likely impact of a 50p unit price has eroded slightly since it was devised.

“We strongly supported the government decision to implement it at 50p and just to push on and get the policy in place,” Ms Douglas says. “I think it is then about how we calibrate it so we ensure that we are getting the balance right between the positive benefits and conversely avoiding any negative unintended consequences.”

Beyond MUP, the Scottish Government plans to consult on regulations to protect children and other vulnerable groups from alcohol advertising – a move backed by Alcohol Focus Scotland.

“The international evidence around what works in reducing alcohol consumption and harm is really well established…We know that alcohol marketing is incredibly attractive and that it does boost consumption by children and young people and that obviously has negative consequences on health and well-being, so we’re really pleased to see marketing is going to be in the spotlight.

She continues:

The other aspect [is] alcohol availability; just how freely available alcohol is, how many shops and premises are selling alcohol. It really is in every corner shop these days and that drives the amount that we drink and encourages us to think that alcohol is an everyday part of our lives.

That’s really unhelpful and it’s particularly unhelpful for people who find it difficult to limit the amount of alcohol that they consume.

And in future, Alcohol Focus Scotland wants the extra cash raised by MUP to be channelled into treatment and support for people struggling with alcohol problems – not ‘lining the pockets of retailers’.

Notwithstanding these changes, Alcohol Focus Scotland is firmly behind the policy:

We believe it will improve the lives of people who already have alcohol problems by encouraging and supporting them to cut down on what they are drinking – but also, crucially, it’s a preventative policy that should mean that fewer of us develop alcohol problems in the future.”