THE World Health Organisation has given praise to “promising” evidence for Scotland’s minimum unit pricing cutting alcohol consumption.
But it suggested that it should be tied to inflation in order to ensure that the positive impacts will last, stating that it “may erode the effective level at which the MUP is set”.
In a report examining the links between the pricing of alcohol and health, the WHO said that the MUP scheme “effectively targets the cheap, high-strength products” that drive health inequalities, thereby reducing them.
It acknowledged Scotland and Wales as being the only countries with MUP which applies across all products, and that Scotland is the only country to have a ban on multi-buy discounts on all types of alcohol, rather than spirits specifically.
The WHO report also noted that the affordability of alcohol has increased as a result of the abolition of the duty escalator back in 2014, with duty rates being “frozen or cut almost every year”. It pointed out that alcohol-specific death rates have subsequently risen by 7%.
READ MORE: Drink sales fall in Scotland after 50p per unit minimum pricing
It said: “Whilst other economic factors have been in play over the period since 2008, including the global financial crash, it seems likely that the duty escalator played a role in reducing alcohol-related harm while it was in place.”
The 50p per unit lower limit came into force in Scotland in May 2018. It is due to be reviewed at the end of the year.
The pricing is not yet linked to inflation, but the report added: “Policymakers may wish to consider indexing MUP to inflation or putting an alternative mechanism in place to periodically review the level at which MUP is set and uprate it where necessary.”
Dr Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems and a contributor to the WHO report, said: “We were satisfied with 50 pence as a starting point.
“But we do think – and this applies to any fiscal intervention – that it needs to keep up with wages and prices through some sort of automatic mechanism. We’re keen to see that happen.”
READ MORE: Alcohol sales in Scotland fall for second year in a row
Rice voiced concern on the impact lockdown has had on problem drinkers after retailers reported a rise in alcohol sales.
“The best indicators suggest that overall consumption has probably come down, and that the increase in off-trade sales hasn’t offset the closure of pubs and bars,” he said.
“But it may be that drinking has become more polarised in that existing heavy drinkers are drinking more heavily at home.”
Scotland’s Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick welcomed the WHO’s praise, but said the link between pricing and inflation could be “too simplistic”.
He said: “The MUP evaluation programme reported recently that it was associated with a net reduction of between 4% and 5% in off-trade alcohol sales per adult in its first year.
“Furthermore, the latest annual statistics showed the total volume of alcohol sales per adult in Scotland in 2019 remained at its lowest level since 1994 – for the second year running.
READ MORE: Minimum alcohol pricing ‘helps smaller shops compete’
“We continue to keep the level of minimum price under review, and will consider all relevant emerging evidence. A range of factors, including people’s incomes, need to be taken into account when reviewing the level.
“It is the affordability of alcohol that matters and linking MUP solely to inflation may be too simplistic.
“We remain committed to preventing and tackling alcohol-related harm in Scotland, and will continue to keep population health at the forefront of our consideration on MUP.
“The Scottish Government has, over a number of years, called for a review of the UK alcohol duty system, which we believe should be reformed in order to better reflect product strength.”