The eyes of the world (or at least those parts of the world that give a damn about booze) are on Scotland this week, where Minimum Unit Pricing has finally come into force.
It’s a fiercely controversial bit of legislation – heralded by some as a pioneering move to save lives. But others see it as a sign of the temperance lobby’s steady creep towards power, and as a harbinger of strife for the wider UK drinks trade.
In any case, if the public health lobby can find evidence of its success over coming months, expect calls for its implementation across England to swell (Wales has already lurched down the path towards minimum pricing with its own bill in late 2017).
The stakes are high. According to academics, many lives could be saved by the policy, with the Scottish government claiming it will reduce the death rate by some 121 people per year by its 20th year.
But other experts warn it disproportionately punishes the poor (ignoring that it is the rich, in fact, who are generally the UK’s heaviest drinkers) and that it relies on shaky assumptions about how “at-risk” drinkers behave.
There’s also a danger to brands. When Scottish MUP was greenlit last year, one senior industry source warned The Grocer of “a real danger for mid-market brands that have premium marketing and a lot of money being spent on them. All the brands underneath could suddenly disappear from the market because the grocers can’t uphold a cascading level of pricing.”
The logic being that if, for instance, a value vodka brand’s price is pushed up to £12 per bottle by MUP, mid-tier brand owners previously operating at that price point would need to raise prices to safeguard their position in shoppers’ minds as worth paying a premium for. No doubt some uncomfortable conversations are taking place.
Illicit booze pushers
And while a higher price on the likes of super-strength ciders and spirits may indeed send some shoppers scurrying, there’s nothing to stop them heading across the border to buy their booze, or worse, to illicit booze pushers. As famed anti-MUP pundit Christopher Snowdon notes, mockingly: “Today is a good day if you run an off-licence in Berwick-upon-Tweed.”
Still, it would be ridiculous to treat the absurdly high number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland with anything but despair and contempt – the country has the highest rate of alcohol-specific deaths of the UK’s constituent parts in 2016. But Scotland has also seen the largest decrease in those rates since their peak in the early 2000s, according to the ONS.
And that’s without mentioning that MUP doesn’t necessarily address the wider socio-economic issues that fuel alcohol abuse, such as poverty and unemployment. Indeed, alcohol-specific deaths across the UK were significantly higher in the most deprived local areas in 2016, the same ONS document reports. Retailers’ feet must be tired from the sheer amount of blame being laid at them.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that MUP’s implementation this week is not necessarily permanent: the bill has a ‘sunset clause’ – it will be scrapped if it is deemed not to have worked within five years.
Which means the pressure will be on from both sides to substantiate the claims as to its effectiveness (or ineffectiveness).