Blog Post: Supreme Court makes momentous decision on Minimum Unit pricing in Scotland

Today the Supreme Court has ruled that Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) for alcohol is legal. This is a momentous decision, following five years of legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association. It means that the Scottish Government can now implement MUP and allow a potentially game-changing alcohol policy to finally be introduced.

After years of public debate on the merits and politics of MUP, we may lose sight of the basic principle behind it. MUP establishes a minimum price below which a unit of alcohol can be sold. It is not a new tax on alcohol, and – unlike alcohol taxes – it applies equally regardless of the type of drink. In practice, if set at 50p per unit, this means it will only impact on the very cheapest and strongest drinks. Some will become significantly more expensive: currently, a three litre bottle of white cider – equivalent to 22 shots of vodka – can be bought for less than £4. Most products, however, will remain unchanged or face only a small increase in price. MUP will have no effect on pub prices, since almost all drinks in pubs are already sold at well above 50p per unit. This price disparity is why MUP is supported by many publicans.

The principle behind MUP is simply to reduce the harm caused by the strongest and cheapest drinks on the market. Estimates from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, which are based on the most extensive analysis of price-responsiveness available, predict that a 50p MUP will only significantly impact on people drinking at harmful levels. Research suggests that even very heavy drinkers respond to price, so there is very good reason to believe this policy will lead to such people reducing their consumption, and reducing their risks as a result. Since very heavy drinkers consume almost half of the alcohol sold in Britain, this will have a significant impact. It may also help prevent people falling into harmful or dependent drinking by taking very cheap, very strong alcohol out of the equation.

No doubt there will remain many voices opposed to MUP. Many of the major alcohol producers object to the policy on principle, while defenders of the free market argue that no commodity should be subject to state interventions of this kind. However, it is self-evident that alcohol is unlike other commodities because, although a widespread source of pleasure, it can also be a source of considerable health harm and, in some cases, dependency. Governments have always implemented policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences of heavy drinking, and this is no different.

As a research-based organisation, we are particularly pleased that the Scottish Government is preparing to launch an extensive and thorough evaluation of MUP, which will monitor and assess the impact over the next few years. As a result, we will soon be able to know in more precise detail the extent to which MUP tackles harms, and what wider social effects it may have. We strongly welcome this commitment to evaluating such an important policy intervention.

With the Welsh Government announcing that it intends to introduce MUP in the next year, the Westminster Government desperately needs to catch up to reduce harm and improve the health and wellbeing of thousands of people. Having committed to introduce MUP in 2012, and having now had the legality of the measure confirmed, Westminster must act.

Ironically, the Supreme Court judgement confirms the status of MUP under EU trade law: the legal challenge was launched long before Brexit appeared on the horizon. Brexit, however, provides an enormous opportunity for the UK Government, and the devolved administrations, to look again at alcohol pricing policy. Not only MUP, but smarter tax systems that can better incentivise lower Alcohol By Volume (ABV) products are now a real possibility. If the opportunity is not missed, we could in a few years have a more modern, flexible and rational set of alcohol policies which can really target the kind of harms everyone would like to see reduced.


by Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development, Alcohol Research UK / Alcohol Concern