A minimum unit price for alcohol?

12 June 2015

Article by Philippa Watkins, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Minimum unit pricing for alcohol was one of the more contentious public health proposals included in the Public Health White Paper consultation. This proposal is not being taken forward in the Public Health (Wales) Bill, introduced earlier this week. However, the Welsh Government has indicated that it remains committed to minimum unit pricing as a key public health measure, and that a draft bill will be published for consultation ‘in due course’.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Research has shown that a 50 pence minimum unit price could reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions in Wales by more than 1,400 and save 53 lives each year. The Welsh adaptation of the Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model (September 2014) concluded that:

  • Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) policies would be effective in reducing alcohol consumption, alcohol-related harms (including alcohol-related deaths, hospitalisations, crime and workplace absences) and the costs associated with those harms;
  • MUP policies would only have a small impact on moderate drinkers. Somewhat larger impacts would be experienced by increasing risk drinkers, with the most substantial effects being experienced by high risk drinkers.

There was broad overall support for the proposal in the White Paper; many responses to the consultation agreed that minimum unit pricing is a targeted measure which would have most impact on people who drink at higher levels.

A minority of stakeholders (notably representing the alcohol industry and retailers) were opposed, suggesting there is a lack of robust evidence to support minimum unit pricing as an effective policy, that it may be contrary to EU law, and that there are questions around the National Assembly for Wales’ competence in this area.

Minimum unit pricing legislation was passed in Scotland in 2012, but has not yet been implemented due to a legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association. The main basis for the challenge is that minimum unit pricing may contravene EU law by adversely affecting trade and free movement of goods. In April 2015, the First Minister confirmed to the Assembly that minimum unit pricing would not be included in the Public Health (Wales) Bill ‘whilst there is still some uncertainty about the timing of the European judgment on Scotland’s Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012’.

Whether or not Wales has competence to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol has been the subject of lively debate in the Assembly. Following a briefing on the White Paper by Welsh Government officials (October 2014), the Health and Social Care Committee wrote to the Health Minister requesting clarification. The Minister responded:

In my view, the National Assembly for Wales has the competence to legislate on a wide range of public health measures, including the proposals for minimum unit pricing of alcohol, pursuant to Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. Given this position, I confirm that neither I nor my officials have held any discussions with the UK Government other than to confirm the Welsh Government’s intention to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol contained in the Public Health White paper, ‘Listening to you; your health matters’.