Will a minimum alcohol price stop young people from misusing alcohol?

Scotland recently introduced a minimum price per unit of alcohol.  The Youth Agenda asks, ‘is it the right approach?’

Andrew Deans, a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, Colin Shevills the Director of Balance North East (an alcohol awareness lobby) and a leading Scottish whiskey company provided their perspectives on the issue to The Youth Agenda.  The article also draws on a recent press release from the office of Nicola Sturgeon MSP (Scottish Health Secretary).


About the policy

The minimum price per unit of alcohol is being set at 50 pence in Scotland only.  The main target drinks of the policy are cheap alternative own brands of cider and spirits.  These own brands are the most accessible by people with a lower budget.  Although the policy is wide ranging and non-discriminatory in who has to pay, young people are seen to be a significant group who will be affected by it.

A pack of Tesco Strong cider (4x440ml), for example, will more than double in price to £4.67, whereas a 70cl bottle of Tesco Value vodka will increase in price by £4.41 to £13.13.  The policy also has the effect of targeting supermarkets who sell multi-packs of alcohol as loss leaders to attract customers in to their stores.

The price increase is not a tax.  This means the extra money being made from the policy will not go directly to the government.  It will instead be extra income for retailers and potentially for suppliers.  The new policy does not dictate what retailers or drinks companies should do with the extra income.

Change our relationship

Nicola Sturgeon MSP (Scottish Health Secretary) said in a recent press release¹:

‘Cheap alcohol comes at a price and now is the time to tackle the toll that Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is taking on our society.  Too many Scots are drinking themselves to death. The problem affects people of all walks of life.’

Andrew Deans MSYP (Convener for Health and Wellbeing) believes the policy will affect young people significantly.  When asked by The Youth Agenda if the policy will restrict young people’s access to alcohol, he said:

‘It has to, especially as young people tend to be lower earners and tend to be on lower incomes…but it’s not going to make all the difference.’  He goes on to say ‘the key thing is to change the relationship and not just change the price.’

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance North East, who work to raise awareness of the problems caused by alcohol, believes that our relationship with alcohol is based on three things – price, availability and marketing.

Colin argues alcohol marketing is particularly important for young people, claiming ‘the industry spends £800 million per year, pushing this addictive drug in to the market place’.

A spokesman for a leading Scottish whiskey company, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Youth Agenda ‘price is but a small factor’ in the relationship between young people and alcohol, going on to say:

‘Minimum pricing is not the right approach to tackle misuse.  If people are desperate for alcohol they will find the money, hence price intervention is of limited use.’

He also believed that education about alcohol had a part to play:

‘Education is preferred [to pricing policy], but it relies on other people buying into it.’

Colin however said Balance North East is ‘incredibly supportive of the introduction of minimum unit pricing in Scotland.  It’s one of the best evidenced tools we have to try and reduce consumption.’

Funding a better relationship

The minimum pricing policy is not a tax.  That means the extra revenues generated from the increases in price will not be paid directly to the government.  The Scottish Government² declares:

‘As happens now, it will be up to producers and retailers to negotiate on the price of contracts between them. The only direct effect of the legislation will be on what price is charged to the consumer, not what level of price is agreed earlier in the supply chain.’

So either the retailers or the drinks companies will benefit from the extra income.  There are however no guidelines in the new alcohol policy detailing what those companies should do with that extra income.

The spokesman for the Scottish whiskey company pointed to a change from the original intention:

‘All the extra money goes in to the retailers pockets.  Labour thought that money would be ring-fenced.’

Andrew Deans said ‘if it is going to retailers, we would like to see retailers using that [income] in community funds or using it in a way that’s helpful to the community.’

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¹ Press release from the office of Nicola Sturgeon MSP, Health Secretary – 14 May 2012

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/05/minimum-pricing14052012

² Scottish Government website questions and answers on minimum pricing –

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Health/health/Alcohol/minimum-pricing/Q-A

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Related linksfor more information on the minimum unit pricing policy in Scotland

Balance North East

Scottish Youth Parliament

Scottish Government website with messages of support for the policy

The Alcohol (Scotland) Act 2010 (the act containing the policy)

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