Public Health Scotland (PHS) today published early findings from a study of the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) on people who are dependent on alcohol and are accessing treatment services. This first report presents data on awareness of changes in product availability and price, responses to MUP and the need for targeted support.

The University of Sheffield was commissioned to look at the impact of MUP on those drinking at harmful levels, and these early findings come from the first of four work packages. Together these represent a substantial programme of mixed-methods research – which reflects the importance of understanding this key population’s response to MUP.

Structured interviews were carried out with adults entering treatment services in Scotland and Northern England at three different points: up to 6 months before the implementation of MUP, 3 to 9 months after MUP was implemented, and 18 to 22 months after MUP implementation.

The study found little evidence of negative consequences of MUP, such as a shift to use of illicit substances, among people who are alcohol dependent and accessing treatment services.

The proportion of people with alcohol dependence typically drinking alcohol at less than 50 pence per unit reduced substantially, from about 6 out of 10 people before MUP, to about 1 in 10 after MUP was introduced. Sixty two percent of participants were found to have noticed prices changing, particularly in the months immediately following implementation, with two thirds of those describing prices as ‘much’ more expensive. There is also evidence that some people who are dependent on alcohol may have reduced other expenditure due to spending more on alcohol.

Participants in Scotland were asked whether any support had been offered to them, to help them cope with the rise in alcohol prices since May 2018. The majority of participants (both those interviewed prior to MUP and those interviewed after implementation) were not aware of any support available to them. When asked what support would be helpful, suggestions included increased access to treatment services, financial support or advice, and awareness raising about the policy.

Associate Professor Penny Buykx, University of Newcastle (Australia) and Honorary Reader at University of Sheffield, who led this arm of the study, said:

“The initial results of this on-going study show a sharp fall in the proportion of people who access alcohol dependence treatment that are consuming very low cost products. Crucially it also finds few reports of either substitution to illicit, stolen or non-beverage alcohol, or increased use of other substances, after MUP was introduced. 

“However, whilst people with alcohol dependence expressed a need for support to prepare for price rises, many were not aware of this support being available to them, and there is an indication that some participants reduced their living expenditure to accommodate higher spending on alcohol”. 

Professor John Holmes, Professor of Alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, led the overall study. He said:

“People who are dependent on alcohol have complex needs and may respond to policies such as Minimum Unit Pricing in ways that have consequences for their own health and wellbeing, the health and wellbeing of those around them, and the wider society they are part of. This is the first report from our comprehensive investigation of the impact of MUP on those drinking at harmful levels, and gaining a full understanding of that impact among this particular population is critical.  

“These early findings support previous results from the evaluation of MUP in Scotland by showing that the policy has reduced the availability of cheap alcohol, which was often consumed by those at greatest risk of harm from their drinking.

“They also highlight the need for government and health authorities to think about how they can support people with alcohol dependence when alcohol prices increase sharply”.

Helen Chung Patterson, Public Health Intelligence Adviser at PSH, said:

“This early report presents an initial description of the impact of MUP on people who are alcohol dependent. It is crucial that we also fully investigate MUP’s impact on alcohol consumption and spending among this group, as well as any further positive or negative secondary effects of the policy. A final report of this package of work, which will capture these findings, will be published in 2022”.

For more information, read the full report and briefing paper, Impact of Minimum Unit Pricing among people who are alcohol dependent and accessing treatment services.

Last updated: 06 October 2022