Minimum unit pricing underway in Scotland

"Well done, SNP, in one fell swoop you made heroin cheaper than alcohol – that’s really going to solve all of Scotland’s problems.”

It might sound like the opening line of a new Irvine Welsh novel, but it was just one of many comments from incredulous Scots on social media after a 50p minimum unit price on alcohol came into force on May 1. 

One unimpressed retailer, Betty Glen of High Spirit Off Sales in Glasgow, said: “They should look at why people drink in the first place rather than the price of the drink. It is just to make it look like they are doing something about the drink problem.” 

Consumer choice is clearly being restricted as popular brands are being withdrawn, while certain pack formats are disappearing. One of the bestselling SKUs, 20x44cl cans of 4% abv Tennent’s, has risen 43%, from £12.31 to £17.60, and its days look numbered. Mainstream brands such as Strongbow are also in the firing line. Chaos has reigned in Scotland. One multiple retailer removed multipacks before May 1, but another did not and when the multipack was scanned through the till it came in below the MUP. There is still plenty to be ironed out, while many Scots will have stocked up before the law came into effect, so it will take a few months before the effects of the policy become clear.

Yet two immediate consequences are apparent: booze cruising is back and shopkeepers in Carlisle, Berwick and other English border towns are in for a boon, while Buckfast is set to go through the roof in Scotland. One retailer reported that cider sales are down, but Buckfast sales are flying. Buckfast is already in 28% growth in Scotland and it accounts for three times the number of alcoholic units on the Scottish market as white cider, which is in long-term decline. However, Buckfast – the tonic wine made by Benedictine monks in Devon, described as “the drink that gets you fucked fast” by devotees and “a psychopath’s playground” by Scottish papers, replete with a 15% abv and more caffeine than a Red Bull – is not affected by MUP. 

On the booze cruising front, if you go down to Carlisle and load up a Transit van with beer and cider, bring it back and supply the streets of Scotland, you can make up to £500 profit on a single journey and still seriously undercut retailers. 

That will simply embolden the anti-alcohol lobby to reiterate its increasingly frantic demands for MUP to be introduced in England and Wales. Gordon Johncox, managing director of Aston Manor Cider, told DRN: “The anti-alcohol lobby continues to be well-organised, well-funded, and very, very focused in the way it is attacking the industry. The industry has been guilty of not understanding that threat clearly and underestimating the anti-alcohol lobby. We have seen it reporting inaccurate, misleading statements, even after the errors in them have been pointed out. 

“There is an unwillingness to engage with us. It is happy to make sensationalist claims and it undoubtedly distorts the public debate around alcohol. 

“With minimum unit pricing, while the lobby is euphoric, it is getting its excuses in early, saying the price isn’t high enough. When it’s proven that MUP didn’t achieve its objectives – and I believe that this will be proven – it will turn around and say, ‘well the price wasn’t high enough’.”

Aston Manor, which supplies brands including Frosty Jack’s, Knights and Kingstone Press, along with own-label ciders for a number of retailers, has been the most vocal critic of MUP in Scotland. “We believe any sensible and independent analysis of the case for MUP, with the limited impact on harmful drinkers and the disproportionate burden on moderate drinkers, makes this an unmerited policy,” said Johncox. “This is exacerbated by the fact that MUP means reduced government revenues at a time when the resources going into drug and alcohol services have been cut over several years. It is a matter of regret that the poorly informed public debate on this point has not enabled a closer examination of MUP. As reality sets in over the coming weeks and months it is likely that many will be prompted to reconsider their view.”

The case for England

However, the industry should be concerned at the news that the Department of Health has appointed Public Health England to explore the case for MUP in England. Campaigner Chris Snowdon used the Freedom of Information act to uncover a series of shocking emails showing how PHE encouraged the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group to change its model and massage its figures to justify reducing the chief medical officer’s weekly guidelines for alcohol consumption from 21 units to 14 for men. 

“When you look at how PHE handled the revised chief medical officer guidelines, I can’t see how anyone in the industry can have anything other than deep reservations around the impartiality of PHE,” said Johncox. Snowdon told DRN he believes such skulduggery is “endemic” at PHE, adding: “Its relationship with the anti-drink lobby, which extends to holding its Alcohol Leadership Board meetings at the offices of a temperance group, is worryingly cosy for a state agency. Its decision to appoint leading anti-alcohol campaigners such as Ian Gilmore and Katherine Brown, both of the Alcohol Health Alliance, to the guidelines committee shows that it has become politicised.”

When the potential of introducing MUP in England was debated at Westminster earlier this year, MPs including Tim Loughton and Ben Bradshaw were rigorous in challenging the anti-alcohol lobby’s sensationalist claims. “I was pleased to see in the Westminster hearing that MPs were sensible and robust and at times made them look quite foolish,” said Johncox. “I hope there’s a little bit more intelligence and common sense in the debate south of the border. I hope people look at the impact MUP has in Scotland and do some consumer research on it. I hope there’s more rigour in Westminster than there has been in Holyrood.”

Fate of funds

Some Scottish MPs believe that the extra revenue generated by MUP will go to the government, while some journalists have been under the impression it will be used to fund treatment programmes. “It has become increasingly obvious to me that the quality of the debate around MUP has been quite poor in Scotland,” says Johncox. “There’s a lack of understanding and a lack of rigour around what the policy means and what it will bring.”

But SNP MSP Sandra White hit back. “It’s time for the makers of Frosty’s to jack it in and stop railing against a policy which will deal with harmful drinking, improve health and save lives,” she said.

The anti-alcohol lobby is now calling for plain packaging on alcohol, as seen on tobacco. “The objective is to denormalise the consumption of alcohol,” said Johncox. “The facts are almost irrelevant to the anti-alcohol lobby. They will go about achieving their aims in whatever way they can. We will live in a neo-prohibitionist society if they have their way.”

He added: “You have to realise how influential a very limited number of voices have become. There needs to be a greater realisation of the way the anti-alcohol lobby operates. If other businesses believe MUP is a flawed policy, and I think most do, and that it has been introduced because of the strength of the anti-alcohol lobby, they need to challenge the anti-alcohol lobby and call out every instance of misinformation that’s publicised and share insight of the sector and support other, more appropriate responses to alcohol abuse. It needs people to wake up and smell the coffee, and be less reticent about challenging and providing balance to the argument. 

“When you challenge or oppose MUP, or something else the anti-alcohol lobby is so passionate about, you immediately get accused of fighting action to tackle alcohol harm. Opposition to MUP is not opposition to tackling misuse of alcohol. We would always welcome measures that are proportionate and effective. Why would it be in our interests to target problem drinkers and under-age drinkers? That would bring the industry down. We just think MUP will be ineffective and disproportionate. 

“These considerable reservations should never be misconstrued as opposition to effective action on misuse. It is in the interests of all, including drinks producers, that everyone has an informed and sensible relationship with alcohol, whether they choose to drink or not. While the introduction of MUP will affect the mix and volume of our sales, our interest in the debate around this policy and other initiatives is because we take seriously our intention to be a sustainable and responsible business. 

“Further, we have considerable knowledge and insight into the composition and dynamics of the drinks market and of the nature and preference of consumers that is, regrettably, not matched by policymakers and others involved in the public debate on alcohol.”  

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