Will minimum alcohol pricing come to England and Wales?

After a protracted, and acrimonious, legal battle, the Scottish Government’s minimum unit pricing (MUP) strategy for alcohol came into force on May 1. Just weeks on, it’s still too early to consider what impacts MUP may be having on pubs north of the border. One question playing on the mind of many a publican in England and Wales, however, is whether MUP is likely to be extended to the rest of the UK. And what might the impact be for pubs and publicans?

What has happened in Scotland, and why?

Beginning from the first of this month, the lowest price a retailer can legally charge for alcohol is 50p per unit, across Scotland. A longstanding policy objective of the Scottish Government, MUP is a public health measure designed to reduce the number of people suffering from problems caused by consuming large quantities of low-priced alcohol.

The measure was first passed into Scottish law back in 2012. However, implementation was delayed for six years by a lengthy legal battle between Scottish alcohol producers and the government. Industry groups, including the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA), argued that the ban was a breach of EU law because it was disproportionate and restricted competition. The courts, including the UK Supreme Court, disagreed and allowed MUP to come into force.

Will MUP achieve its aims?

It is too early to say. The law has been in force for only a short period of time, so there have not yet been any reliable measures of its impact. That said, it is not hard to see how reducing the availability of cheap alcohol could work to reduce excessive consumption, and so bring population-wide health benefits.

Of course, whether the reality will turn out to be as straightforward as the theory remains to be seen.

What about England and Wales?

It’s important to remember that there is already a form of minimum pricing for alcohol in force in England and Wales. Since April 6 2014, a ‘floor price’ has been in place, banning the sale of ultra-cheap alcoholic drinks which, in some cases, were being sold for less than bottles of water in supermarkets.

Although setting out to achieve the same health benefits, it’s difficult to say whether the floor price has had any impact at all. Indeed, there is research from Sheffield University in 2014 that discovered MUP is 50 times more effective in reducing problem drinking than a floor price. This disparity is because a floor price has little impact on low-volume, high strength drinks such as spirits.

Successive governments in Westminster have come out against MUP, but that doesn’t mean that it will always remain the case. The Department of Health has repeatedly insisted that it is taking action to reduce problem drinking. However, it is sure to be awaiting evidence of what effect MUP has in Scotland and, if it proves to be as effective as the Scottish Government insists it will be, then it will become challenging for the Westminster government to resist introducing a similar measure.

What has the impact been on pubs?

MUP has only been in force in Scotland for a few weeks, so it’s far too early to measure the impact – if indeed there is one – of the policy on pubs. However, it’s clear that the apocalypse predicted by the Scottish Whisky Association and others seems deeply unlikely.

In fact, it’s possible that MUP may be a favourable opportunity for pubs, as it reduces the availability of bargain basement drinks from supermarkets.

One thing is guaranteed, however: if the government in Westminster does decide to introduce MUP in England and Wales, there will be no protracted legal battle as there was in Scotland. The courts at both UK and EU level have spoken and ruled that MUP is a legal and proportionate way to tackle the public health challenges that stem from problem drinking. The industry will have to adapt.