Making the case against MUP
10 Feb 2014
This is my first blog as the new CEO of the Scotch Whisky
Association. I aim to use these pieces not just to highlight
the achievements of the Scotch Whisky industry, but also to
stimulate debate and comment.
Today is a good day to start. It coincides with another
report (in the Lancet) from the team at Sheffield University on
their efforts to model the potential impact of minimum unit pricing
(MUP). These efforts are certainly well worth making.
But we need to remember - as every forecaster trying to model our
unpredictable British weather knows - that such models have
limitations. There are only predictions and any model is only
as good as the assumptions that go into it.
Obviously we don't have full details of the report or the model
which it is based on, but I find a couple of the published results
First, the model predicts the majority of harmful drinkers will
reduce what they spend on alcohol, and that this effect would be
most marked for those on the lowest incomes.
This may or may not be true. It is an assumption since we
have no substantive evidence from MUP in the real world. It
is just as plausible to argue that a harmful consumer, for whom
drinking is already a major part of their lifestyle, would simply
spend more in order to maintain their consumption level, if
necessary cutting spending on essentials to absorb a price
increase. Equally, they might simply switch to illicit
Second, the study contradicts claims often made in Scotland that
hazardous and harmful drinkers in general favour cheap and strong
alcohol, and indeed estimates that a 45p a unit minimum price would
make little impact on the consumption of harmful drinkers with
anything but the lowest incomes.
This is certainly plausible, though it is harder to see why the
model suggests that, for certain higher-income hazardous drinkers,
consumption may actually increase. Indeed, for hazardous
drinkers the improvement in health outcomes is limited and, for
In short, we believe the report does nothing to undermine the
logic behind the UK Government's decision not to proceed with MUP
last year: that they had not seen "evidence that conclusively
demonstrates that Minimum Unit Pricing will actually do what it is
meant to: reduce problem drinking without penalising all those who
That fact - that minimum pricing would be ineffective - is one
of the reasons why we at the Scotch Whisky Association are
challenging the Scottish Government's minimum pricing law in the
It's not the only reason. It's also unnecessary, because
there are alternative solutions. For example, problem
drinkers can be targeted by specific programmes. Indeed
many such schemes are already being implemented, for example under
the auspices of the Scottish Government Alcohol Industry
Partnership, and this industry's own contribution through the
recently launched Scotch Whisky Action Fund. Existing
initiatives may be why Scottish alcohol-related hospital discharge
rates have fallen 14% since 2008 and Scottish alcohol-related
deaths have fallen by a third since 2003.
We also believe it would be illegal, because it distorts the EU
single market and because its aims can be achieved in other less
restrictive ways. The EU Commission said last year that the
law 'may create obstacles to the free movement of goods within the
internal market contrary to article 34 [of the Treaty] and appears
to be disproportionate under article 36. For these reasons
... the draft regulation in question would be in breach of Article
34.' That view appears to be shared by France, Spain,
Italy, Bulgaria, and Portugal, who submitted detailed opinions
opposing the law.
Finally, we believe it ignores the fact that there is a world
beyond Scotland and the UK. Over 90% of Scotch Whisky is
exported. When I was a diplomat, I saw that Scotch Whisky
faces a range of unjustified barriers to sale in other countries -
high import duties, discriminatory taxes, unfair product
regulations - often justified by reference to how Scotch Whisky is
treated in its own, home market. Because of the UK's high
reputation for effective regulatory policy and the beacon effect
that goes with it, minimum pricing will be used to justify
maintaining these barriers.
I think it's important to set out the case at some length.
But I am sorry that this debate has become so
polarised. I hope that it's still possible to move
beyond a slanging match and work with all partners, whether in the
industry, in the public health community, or more broadly, to build
a broader and better consensus in Scotland around the best ways of
tackling alcohol misuse. It is not too late to move forward
in a way we could all support.
David Frost is chief executive of the Scotch Whisky