Minimum pricing. First Scotland, now Wales. What’s next?

Andrew Misell | March 2020 | 7 minutes

On 2 March 2020, minimum unit pricing is being introduced in Wales - here we explain the background to the measure, the benefits it will bring, and why efforts to introduce it in England remain stalled.

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Minimum unit pricing (MUP) sets a baseline price for a unit of alcohol, below which it can’t be sold. That means that it increases the price of very cheap, strong alcohol, and this reduces the harm alcohol causes. A minimum unit price of 50p is already in place in Scotland, and on 2 March 2020 was introduced in Wales.

Some policy changes take longer than others. It was back in 2009 that our predecessor charity Alcohol Concern published The Price is Right, arguing that “a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol…would result in a significant reduction in alcohol-related harms, whilst ensuring that alcohol remains affordable for moderate drinkers”. In the intervening 11 years, we have continued to argue that case, building up a body of evidence and a movement of supporters. On 2 March 2020, our work and that of many others will come to fruition when a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol comes into force in Wales, two years after an equivalent measure was introduced in Scotland.

Good news. But it does raise the question of why nothing similar is happening in the UK’s most populous nation: England. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2012, the UK Government pledged to introduce MUP across England and Wales “as soon as possible”. In the same year, the Scottish Parliament passed its own minimum price measure. You might have thought that MUP was in the bag. Not so. In 2016, MUP in England and Wales was dropped in favour of a ban on the sale of alcohol below the total cost of excise duty and VAT – a threshold so low it is effectively meaningless.

Meanwhile, challenges from the alcohol industry had left the Scottish legislation bogged down in the courts, and MUP wasn’t implemented north of the border until 2018. In Wales, it wasn’t clear whether the Assembly actually had the power to introduce MUP. But in 2017 Welsh Ministers decided to test the water. A minimum price bill was introduced, and approved with a healthy majority by Assembly Members. With no legal challenges forthcoming, it received Royal Assent in 2018, with implementation set for 2020.

No single policy can solve every alcohol problem, but we at Alcohol Change UK – along with our 50 or so partners in the Alcohol Health Alliance – think that Scotland and Wales are heading in the right direction in this case.

No single policy can solve every alcohol problem, but we at Alcohol Change UK – along with our 50 or so partners in the Alcohol Health Alliance – think that Scotland and Wales are heading in the right direction in this case. A review of international evidence undertaken by two Welsh universities in 2011 found that “the finding with the strongest evidence base is that consumption of alcohol is highly sensitive to changes in price… When the price of alcohol drops, more is consumed; when alcohol becomes more expensive, less is consumed. This effect is seen across the entire population that drinks alcohol and is not confined to any sub-group of drinkers.” It is also supported by the World Health Organisation.

So, why isn’t MUP happening in England too? Alcohol policy is rarely a simple matter of following the evidence, with priorities and voices pulling it in different directions. Having won its first overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, the SNP clearly saw MUP as part of its mission to make Scotland different. In Wales, the Labour Health Minister was committed to taking action on alcohol harm, saying that refusal to act on pricing was “a message of defeat”. Within the Coalition Government in Westminster and subsequent Conservative Governments, there simply wasn’t the same unanimity of political will, which led to the policy sliding down the agenda.

We are left with a situation in which two very different approaches to alcohol pricing are being tested in three parts of the UK. The impacts of each approach will become clear over the next few years.

For an explanation of how minimum pricing works and how it will affect you if you live in Wales, go to our short Q&A.

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