Evaluating the impact of minimum unit pricing of alcohol in Scotland

South LondonMental Health
Start Date: 1 Sep 2017 End Date: 1 Sep 2019

Evaluating possible intended and unintended consequences of the implementation of Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in Scotland: a natural experiment 

In May 2018, the Scottish government introduced a minimum price for alcohol based on the number of units of alcohol it contains. As a result, the price of cheap, high-strength alcohol has increased.

For example, a two-litre bottle of strong cider, which could have been bought for as little as £2.50, now costs at least £7.50. Cheap own-brand vodka, gin and whisky has also risen in price significantly(1).

The idea behind the policy is that by reducing the affordability of alcohol you reduce alcohol consumption and harms for people at greatest risk. However, although there is evidence that reducing the affordability of alcohol does reduce consumption, there has been little evaluation of minimum unit pricing policies. The change in policy presents this opportunity.

Researchers in our alcohol research team are playing a leading role in the first study of the impact of introducing minimum unit pricing in Scotland. The research team will examine the impact on selected acute health harms and to monitor what, if any, unintended consequences occur. The population in England – where there is no minimum unit pricing – will be the controlled comparison.

Dr Paolo Deluca, reader in addictions research at King’s College London, and member of our alcohol research team, says: ‘We think alcohol-related attendances at emergency departments will reduce. However, drinkers may avoid paying the increased price if they start buying alcohol via the internet or across the border. There may also be some adverse consequences if drinkers switch to cheaper illicit alcohol or other drugs, or reduce their spending on food so that they can afford alcohol.’

The results will be of interest to policy makers and the public in Scotland, the UK and internationally.  

How the study will be conducted

The project has three parts. In the first, data is being collected from four emergency departments in Scotland and North England to see if there is a difference in the rates of alcohol attendees before and after the legislation is in place.

In the second, data will be collected from six sexual health clinics in Scotland and North England. Attendees at the clinics will be asked to complete a questionnaire, seeking information on alcohol consumption, drug use and the source of any alcohol consumed. This setting has been chosen as it allows the study of young people at particularly high risk.

In the third, the researchers will collect qualitative data from young people and heavy drinkers in three contrasting communities in Scotland. The aim is to understand unanticipated benefits and harms and how these may differ between groups.

The study will analyse data by age, gender and a measure of deprivation to determine whether minimum unit pricing impacts some groups differently, such as young people or those with a low income.

To undertake this study, the researchers have gathered a team that brings expertise in evaluation, health research and alcohol epidemiology from six institutions including academia and the NHS.

The project was adopted by CLAHRC South London in February 2018. It is expected to finish in 2020.