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Scotland’s minimum alcohol price policy may have led to a 13% drop in booze-related deaths

Scotland’s controversial minimum unit pricing policy has been linked to a 13 per cent drop in alcohol deaths.

New research suggests 156 deaths per year on average in Scotland may have been prevented due to the price change.

The study looked at deaths specifically caused by alcohol.

But critics have questioned the findings, warning there is no evidence that the drop in deaths after MUP was brought in were directly caused by the policy.

MUP was introduced in Scotland in May 2018, hiking the price of the cheapest, strongest booze such as high strength lager and cider to a minimum of 50p a unit, aimed at cutting consumption among the heaviest drinkers. 

New research suggests 156 deaths per year on average in Scotland may have been prevented due to the price change. Pictured: Alcohol for sale in an Edinburgh off-licence

Since then, studies have shown a variety of results including a drop in alcohol sales but no clear evidence of a change in the habits of those with alcohol dependency, and worryingly, some heavy drinkers spending less on food and bills to afford booze.

The latest research shows that over the first two years and eight months after the policy was implemented, there was a ‘significant’ 13.4 per cent reduction in deaths directly caused by alcohol consumption compared to an estimate, using data from England, of the deaths that would have occurred had the legislation not been implemented.

These include deaths from conditions such as alcohol-related liver disease and acute intoxication.

There was a 4.1 per cent reduction in hospitalisations for conditions directly caused by alcohol, equivalent to avoiding 411 hospitalisations per year, on average.

The study, published in The Lancet, was conducted by researchers from Public Health Scotland, the University of Glasgow and the University of Queensland, Australia.

How much alcohol is too much?

To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, the NHS advises men and women not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.

A unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about:

  • half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
  • a single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)

A small glass (125ml, ABV 12%) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.

But the NHS warns the risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis. 

Short-term risks include injury, violent behaviour and alcohol poisoning.

Long-term risks include heart and liver disease, strokes, as well as liver, bowel, moth and breast cancer.

People who drink as much as 14 units a week are advised to spread it evenly over three or more days, rather than binge drinking.

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant are advised not to drink to reduce risks for the baby.

Source: NHS

Dr Grant Wyper, public health intelligence adviser at PHS, said: ‘The findings highlight that the largest reductions were found for males, and for those living in the 40 per cent most deprived areas, groups which are known to experience disproportionally high levels of alcohol health harms in Scotland.

‘We know that those living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas in Scotland experience alcohol-specific death rates more than five times higher compared to those living in the least deprived areas.

‘The results published today are therefore very encouraging in addressing this inequality, and the overall scale of preventable harm which affects far too many people.’

However, researchers found that MUP was associated with an increase in the rate of deaths and hospitalisations due to short-term conditions caused by alcohol consumption, such as alcohol poisoning, although these findings were not said to be statistically significant.

One reason could be that some people reduced their spending on food or lowered their food intake due to the financial pressures of the policy being implemented, which might have led to faster intoxication or poisoning.

The report authors acknowledged there was an impact on hospital capacity and attendance during the pandemic, which increases the uncertainty of the study data related to hospitalisations.

But some experts have cast doubt on the findings.

Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, said it’s theoretically possible that the reduction in deaths was caused by factors other than MUP such as reduced consumption in the years leading up to the policy.

He said: ‘This is an observational study, and no matter how well other factors are controlled for, it can never prove conclusively that the changes observed in deaths were due to the minimum unit pricing policy.

‘Overall, in my view, there remains some doubt about whether MUP definitely caused the alcohol consumption change and therefore whether it is responsible for reductions in deaths.’

Dr Adam Jacobs, Senior Director for Biostatistical Sciences at Premier Research, said: ‘There may be some uncertainty in attributing which deaths were wholly attributable to alcohol consumption, and the paper would be more convincing to me if they presented statistics on all-cause mortality.

‘It’s important to note that the decrease in hospitalisations did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance.

‘It is plausible that the MUP policy would bring down deaths and hospitalisations due to alcohol consumption, but I don’t think this paper shows it convincingly.’

Scotland’s Public Health Minister Maree Todd said: ‘I am very pleased with these findings, further underlining the value of our world-leading minimum unit pricing policy which has helped reduce alcohol sales to their lowest on record.

‘We’re determined to do all we can to reduce alcohol-related harm which is one of the most pressing public health challenges that we face in Scotland.’