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In Scotland, minimum pricing on alcohol has led to a drop in deaths and hospitalisations

Scotland is among the few countries which have introduced minimum unit pricing on alcoholic drinks.
Scotland is among the few countries which have introduced minimum unit pricing on alcoholic drinks. Copyright AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Copyright AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Minimum unit pricing is estimated to have averted 156 deaths a year since its introduction in May 2018.

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The introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcoholic drinks in Scotland has led to a drop in alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisations in the country, new research has found.

Five years ago, Scotland decided that every alcoholic drink sold in its territory should have a minimum price of £0.50 (€0.57) per unit. That means that the stronger a drink is -- and the more alcohol it contains -- the more expensive it becomes to purchase it.

Studies have found that the introduction of this policy caused a 3% drop in the number of sales of alcoholic drinks. But the policy had a much bigger impact on the number of people who, every year, die of alcohol-related issues. 

A new study published in The Lancet this week found that between May 2018, when the policy was introduced, and December 2020, alcohol-related deaths plunged by 13.4% in Scotland. Hospitalisation related to alcohol consumption dropped by 4.1% in the same period.

That roughly translates into 156 deaths averted per year, according to the study.

The greatest impact was found to be on the most deprived areas of Scotland, which researchers believe it’s proof that the policy “is positively tackling deprivation-based inequalities in alcohol-attributable health harm”. Very often, the most vulnerable categories – the homeless and low-income households – are also the ones who are disproportionately affected by alcohol-related risks. 

In Scotland, health harms from alcohol are five times higher in the most deprived areas compared with the least.

Alcohol-related deaths are, in general, a growing problem in the UK. In 2021, the country reported the highest number of deaths from alcohol-specific causes on record. Within the UK, Scotland is disproportionately affected by the problem, with almost twice the number of alcohol-related deaths than England before the introduction of MUP.

The country is among the few in the world which have introduced MUP. The minimum pricing goes to tackle the problem of alcohol-related harm as well as inequality: heaviest drinkers typically buy the cheapest alcohol.

Commenting on the policy, Scotland’s First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon – who announced her resignation last month but will remain in power until a successor is named – wrote on Twitter that MUP’s introduction was “one of the policies I’m proudest of.”

She added that “it was controversial and difficult but I’m glad we persevered to overcome all the political and court challenges because, as this study suggests, it is saving lives.”

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