Minimum unit pricing is the flagship SNP policy designed to discourage sales of alcohol – particularly cheap, high-strength drinks – by making it more expensive. When it was introduced, The Scotsman welcomed this simple, market forces-based plan as a measure worth trying.
However, there are growing signs that the policy is not having the desired effect. A report by Public Health Scotland (PHS) earlier this year found 29 per cent of problem drinkers responded to higher prices by reducing spending on other things. Now a new PHS report has found that sales of Buckfast rose by 40 per cent in the first year of minimum pricing, while similar brands also saw large increases.
It should be noted that this demonstrates a correlation, not causation; minimum pricing could be dampening down demand and sales of Buckfast might have been even higher without it.
However, the figures suggest the policy isn't achieving its stated aim. And a failing policy is never harmless. In this case, it risks creating the impression that ‘something is being done’, allowing the issue to fall out of the public spotlight.
U-turns come with a political cost, but if policies are not working ministers need to be brave enough to change course. And opposition politicians, rather than making political capital, could instead think of constructive suggestions to help.
Alcohol Focus Scotland has warned “the earlier a young person starts drinking, the more likely they are to drink in ways that can be harmful later in life”. Yet it still far too easy for young people to get access to alcohol. Looking for ways to make alcohol less available and less fashionable to teenagers might be a place to start.
There are already signs that Generation Z are more concerned about body image than drunken nights out, with charity Drinkaware reporting 26 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds are teetotal. This trend may offer a new way of tackling Scotland’s troubled relationship with the demon drink and it is one ministers should perhaps seek to encourage, given the relative lack of success of punitive measures like minimum pricing.