A wide-ranging study has found ‘no clear evidence’ of changing alcohol consumption patterns among people drinking at harmful levels since the introduction of MUP, according to a report from Public Health Scotland (PHS). Some ‘economically vulnerable’ groups were also spending less on essentials like food and utilities and more on alcohol, the report adds.
The study, by the University of Sheffield, Australia’s University of Newcastle and Figure 8 Consultancy Services employed a ‘large programme of mixed-methods research’ to examine patterns of alcohol purchasing and consumption among people drinking at harmful levels, including those dependent on alcohol and people engaged with treatment services. It also studied the impact on other key groups, such as family members and people living in remote or rural areas. The research included interviews with people presenting for treatment, harmful drinkers in the community, treatment providers, family members, carers and others. Data for the study were gathered both before and after implementation of MUP in 2018, and in Northern England as well as Scotland to enable comparisons to be made.
MUP, which was designed to target the cheap, strong drinks favoured by harmful drinkers, was found to have had little effect in terms of severity of dependence or consumption patterns. However, there was also ‘little evidence’ of negative consequences such as acute withdrawal, shifts to illicit substances or increased levels of crime. People with alcohol dependence also reported low levels of awareness and understanding of MUP, saying they had received little information before its introduction.
Previous studies found that off-sales in Scotland fell by up to 5 per cent in the year after MUP was introduced compared to England and Wales (www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/scottish-off-sales-down-5-per-cent-in-year-after-mup) and that the policy has had a ‘lasting impact’ on consumption levels in heavier-drinking households (www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/mup-has-had-lasting-impact-on-drinking-levels). However, the country’s level of alcohol-related deaths increased during the pandemic despite lower alcohol sales (www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/alcohol-deaths-in-scotland-up-during-pandemic-despite-falling-sales).
‘People who drink at harmful levels, and particularly those with alcohol dependence, are a diverse group with complex needs who often experience multiple interacting health and social problems,’ said public health intelligence advisor at PHS, Helen Chung Patterson. ‘They are therefore unlikely to respond to MUP in one single or simple way. Many are likely to drink low-cost high-strength alcohol affected by MUP and are at greatest risk from their alcohol consumption. This population therefore have the potential to benefit the most from MUP but may also continue to experience harms. This research further develops our understanding of and insights into this important population and how they have responded to MUP across a broad range of areas. It’s crucial to build the evidence base in this area as part of our overall evaluation of MUP.’
‘We know from previous studies that MUP reduced alcohol sales, including among those who bought the most alcohol before the policy,’ added study lead and professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield, John Holmes. ‘Our study shows that people with alcohol dependence responded to MUP in very different ways. Some reduced their spending on other things but others switched to lower strength drinks or simply bought less alcohol. It is important that alcohol treatment services and other organisations find ways to support those who do have financial problems, particularly as inflation rises.’
The report has led to headlines like ‘SNP’s alcohol unit price policy “just drove drinkers to spend less on food”’ in the Telegraph, and Holmes has since taken to Twitter to state that ‘our results are not a final judgement on whether MUP works’ and ‘when we say ‘NO CLEAR EVIDENCE of a reduction in consumption’ we chose our words carefully. There is evidence and counter-evidence. We definitely can’t conclude MUP reduced consumption among people drinking harmfully but we’re also not able to conclude that it didn’t.’
Dependent drinkers were better served by other interventions such as treatment, he stated, adding that there had been a ‘significant’ drop in the prevalence of hazardous drinking of more than 3 per cent.