Is it finally time for the North East to set a minimum alcohol price?

Minimum alcohol pricing research

Published on 26 September 2019

A University of Sunderland expert today advised that the North East should follow Scotland’s lead and introduce a minimum pricing policy on alcohol.

It comes as a new report published in the BMJ suggests the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) in Scotland appears to have been successful in reducing the amount of alcohol purchased and consumed.

With the North East suffering similar levels of harm from alcohol, an accompanying invited editorial by John Mooney, a senior lecturer in Public Health at the University of Sunderland  and co-authored by Eric Carlin from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, suggested the region’s health could significantly benefit from a similar MUP implementation.

In May 2018, the Scottish Government introduced a national minimum pricing policy, setting a limit of 50p per unit below which alcohol cannot be sold. Since this is the first implementation of an MUP policy anywhere in the World, the results are likely to be of great interest to public health policy makers, both nationally and internationally.

The research study on which the commentary is based, led by Amy O’Donnell at Newcastle University, set out to assess the impact of MUP on alcohol purchases in Scotland in the eight months immediately after implementation.

The research team found that the effects of MUP were greatest in households who bought the most alcohol, suggesting that policy “has achieved its ambition to make relatively cheap and strong alcohol less affordable, which in turn should positively impact public health over time”.

Their findings are based on shopping data for 2015-18 from 5,325 Scottish households, compared with 54,807 English households as controls, and 10,040 households in northern England to control for potential cross border effects.

After adjusting for number of adults in each household, the introduction of MUP was followed by a price increase of 0.64p per gram (5.1p per UK unit; 7.9%) and a reduction of 9.5 g (1.2 UK units; 7.6%) in weekly ‘off-trade’ (shop) purchases of alcohol per adult per household.

Reductions were most notable for beer, spirits, and cider, including the own-brand spirits and high strength ciders that the policy sought to target.

What’s more, the price increases were greatest in households that bought the largest amount of alcohol (just under £3 per adult per week) and among the lower income groups, supporting the idea that MUP effectively targets those most at risk of harm from alcohol with a minimal impact on household budgets.

John Mooney said: “The impact of the policy has been greatest in those households who purchase the most alcohol and for cheap high strength beverages such as own label spirits and high strength beers and ‘white’ ciders.

“The North East has some of the highest rates of harm in England, although less than in Scotland.

“The paper’s results present a strong case for extending MUP to England – particularly where there are high rates of alcohol misuse, such as the North East.”

In the accompanying editorial, John Mooney and Eric Carlin point out that, in an age when complex public health issues such as harm from alcohol require whole system approaches, “no single policy lever should be seen as a panacea, and MUP is still regarded in Scotland as one component of the overall strategy.”

Nevertheless, they say the observed reductions of up to 7.6% in purchases were more than double previous modelling estimates, indicating that real health benefits could be substantially greater.

“Surely it is time to follow Scotland’s lead and implement MUP across the rest of the UK,” they write. “Action is especially pressing for those regions, such as North East England, with comparable levels of harm from alcohol.”