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 intriguing.

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 alcohol sources.

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 some, negative.

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 drink responsibly."

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 courts. 

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 Association