New WHO report shows Minimum Unit Pricing is the most effective policy to reduce alcohol harm

Posted on: 6th July 2022

There has been mixed coverage of the effectiveness of Minimum Unit Pricing or MUP in the media. The policy recently hit the headlines, following a report by Public Health Scotland, which emphasised the lack of evidence around the impact of MUP on harmful drinkers, without balancing coverage of the strong evidence for MUP’s effectiveness in reducing alcohol harm.

A new report from the World Health Organization shows that introducing minimum pricing for alcohol can protect heavy drinkers and reduce harm to people’s health. The report clarifies that pricing policies and taxation are among the most effective measures that policy-makers can use to address these harms, but they remain underused.

MUP was introduced in Scotland in 2018, Wales in 2020 and Ireland in January 2022. Northern Ireland recently ended its consultation on MUP. England currently have no plans to introduce MUP.

Following the introduction of MUP, alcohol consumption in Scotland fell to the lowest level seen in 25 years. MUP is estimated to have reduced net off-sales purchases in Scotland, compared to England and Wales (before MUP was introduced), by between 4% and 5% in the first year of implementation.

Alcohol harm is closely linked to price, the cheaper the alcohol, the more alcohol is consumed and, therefore, more harm is caused. Minimum Unit Pricing works by targeting the cheapest and strongest products on the market without impacting prices in pubs and bars.

MUP is part of a wider policy approach to address alcohol harm, which also needs to address advertising, affordability and availability. There is good evidence that increasing alcohol prices is among the most effective and cost-effective ways to reduce alcohol consumption and related harms, and that MUP targets price increases on the cheapest alcohol that is favoured by the highest risk drinkers. However, we know much less about how those drinking at harmful levels, and particularly those with alcohol dependence actually respond to price increases.

New World Health Organzation Report

A new report from the World Health Organization states that introducing minimum pricing for alcohol can protect heavy drinkers and reduce harm to people’s health.

Alcohol is responsible for almost one million deaths in the European region every year. Globally, the region has the highest share of deaths caused by alcohol consumption, about 12% of male and 8% of female deaths.

Minimum pricing policies can effectively target heavier drinkers, particularly those from lower socioeconomic groups, and consequently reduce health inequalities. In particular, the report highlights minimum unit pricing as one of the most effective policies.

In Scotland, researchers found that alcohol sales declined by 3.5% after the policy was introduced, while a study looking at household level purchasing data estimated that sales had fallen by as much as 7.7%. In Wales, researchers reported that overall sales of alcohol had fallen by 8.6%.

The authors recommend minimum pricing policies be introduced alongside additional support, such as the provision of high-quality treatment services for dependent drinkers.

Public Health Scotland report on the impact of MUP on people drinking at harmful levels

Public Health Scotland published a new study in June, evaluating the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing on harmful drinkers, including those dependent on alcohol and those accessing treatment services. The study found that there was no clear evidence that MUP reduced alcohol consumption among harmful drinkers.

Previous studies have already shown that MUP has reduced consumption among heavy drinkers. This new study shows that the impact on dependent drinkers is mixed, while some may benefit from MUP, others may continue to experience harms.

The study also pointed out that MUP in Scotland is still set at the level that was proposed 13 years ago and has not been adjusted to inflation since. This has reduced the impact of the policy and has made it less effective than if MUP had kept up with inflation, currently running at 9%.

Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Communications and Policy at the British Liver Trust said,

“Minimum Unit Pricing is an effective policy to target the cheapest alcohol, which is favoured by high risk drinkers. Alcohol consumption in Scotland fell to the lowest level in 25 years following the introduction of MUP in 2018.

Clearly price is a less effective approach to reduce alcohol consumption in the most harmful drinkers. However, the latest WHO report clarifies the overall benefits of MUP. Pricing policies and taxation are demonstrably the most effective measures policy-makers have to reduce alcohol harm.”