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The SNP’s war on booze is bound to fail

The challenges facing Sir Jim Ratcliffe at Manchester Unitedand how he plans to deal with them
Published Time: 09.02.2024 - 19:40:18 Modified Time: 09.02.2024 - 19:40:18

Alcohol-related deaths are up in Scotland since minimum pricing was introduced

Alcohol-related deaths are up in Scotland since minimum pricing was introduced. They are now at a 14-year high

: David Cheskin/PA

Alcoholic drinks purchased in Scotland will rise by 30 per cent in September, after ministers decided to increase the minimum unit price (MUP) of alcohol from 50p to 65p. 

This is a consequence of the outstanding success of the policy aimed at reducing Scotland’s drinks-related deaths and which, according to ministers, is “world-leading”. Except, it hasn’t been. The celebrations better remain on hold and the non-alcoholic prosecco stay in the fridge.

MUP has become one of those policies into which Scotland’s civic society, including most of the political establishment, has bought so enthusiastically that it is now virtually impossible for it to withdraw its support, even if the facts support such an action.

It was proposed by the SNP in its 2011 manifesto as part of the solution to the chronic levels of alcohol-related deaths north of the border. In the proud league table of “Scotland’s Shames”, the tragic issue of people drinking themselves to death ranks even higher than its competitors – drug deaths and religious sectarianism.

The legislation imposing MUP on alcohol was, wisely, subject to a sunset clause of five years, to allow a subsequent change of policy if the expectations of the policy were confounded by the empirical evidence.

The verdict seems to be in. Alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have reached their highest level since 2008, a decade before minimum pricing was introduced. 

Fair enough. It was an imaginative and brave attempt to tackle a serious problem, and the SNP should be applauded for giving it a go, and supported as they search for new, alternative solutions.

But what’s this? Deputy first minister Shona Robison, announcing the increase in unit pricing, said: “Research commended by internationally-renowned public health experts estimated that our world-leading MUP policy has saved hundreds of lives, likely averted hundreds of alcohol-attributable hospital admissions and contributed to reducing health inequalities.”

It’s a strange policy indeed that fails to prevent a 14-year high death toll and yet at the same time can be said to have saved “hundreds of lives”.

In fact, an analysis of the policy carried out by Public Health Scotland concludes that: “There is no clear evidence that minimum unit pricing of alcohol led to reduced alcohol consumption or changes in the severity of alcohol dependence among people drinking at harmful levels.”

And yet problem drinkers – those whose consumption places themselves and others at risk of physical, emotional, psychological or financial harm – provided the overwhelming justification for the policy in the first place. Moderate drinkers – the vast majority of the population – were never the problem.

When MUP was being debated back in 2011, concerns were raised that the dependents of heavy drinkers might become even more financially vulnerable because alcoholics tend to prioritise their own consumption over the needs of their families. This has been borne out by Public Health Scotland: “There is some evidence it increased financial strain among some economically vulnerable groups.”

MUP did not lead to fewer attendances at Accident and Emergency units, or to fewer ambulance call outs. And it did not lead to less alcohol-related crime.

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