- Scotland has published a final report in a big set of studies on the impact of minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
- In 2018, it became a testing ground for the theory that a floor price for booze could help curb alcohol abuse.
- That didn't really happen, the study found. Instead, heavy drinkers mostly found the money to pay more for their drink, or turned to vodka.
- At least they didn't turn more violent, as their families feared, and turn to crime.
- The minimum unit price approach is being closely watched in SA, with a proposal for beer costing at least R25.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Making booze more expensive – say by setting a minimum price of R25 for a beer – may not lead to more crime, but it may not help heavy drinkers slow down either, a new study from Scotland suggests.
Public Health Scotland this week published its final report into the impact of minimum unit pricing (MUP), an approach to dealing with alcohol abuse that is being closely watched in South Africa, and actively pushed by the Western Cape.
In October 2020, Western Cape premier Alan Winde said he wanted "fast-tracked" the implementation of a minimum unit price on alcohol, in order to curb binge drinking, which is blamed in part for everything from gender-based violence to road deaths.
See also | The Western Cape wants minimum booze prices. Those worked elsewhere – after big legal fights
In South Africa, setting a minimum unit price of R10 could save 20,000 lives per year, researchers said last year. At that level, it would be illegal to sell a 750ml bottle of 5% beer for less than R25, and a 750ml bottle of wine with 12.5.% alcohol would cost at least R62.50
Modellers, including collaborators from the University of Glasgow, estimated such an MUP imposed in South Africa would see a big hike in spending on alcohol, while reducing overall consumption by 4.4%.
See also | Have a 750ml beer cost at least R25, and SA may save more than 20,000 lives, researchers say
What it would not do, the research from Scotland suggests, is help heavy drinkers drink less.
Scotland imposed an MUP of £0.50 (the equivalent of R9.70) per unit in May 2018. It closely monitored the impact of the move, ultimately putting together reports based on survey data from more than 100,000 participants, plus quantitative and qualitative interviews. The research sought out the experience not only of heavy drinkers but also their family members, and service providers dealing with those who sought treatment for alcohol dependence.
One set of research said "no clear evidence was found of a reduction in alcohol consumption among people drinking at harmful levels or those with alcohol dependence" after the minimum price was implemented.
A different research approach, which looked at long-term trends, found no statistically significant change in people engaging in harmful or moderate drinking after the price change, and only a 3.5% decrease in prevalence of a third category of drinking, that considered hazardous.
What researchers did discover was an increase in desperation to fund drinking habits.
"Findings from the qualitative interviews show that participants found ways to obtain extra money for purchasing alcohol, including reduced spending on food and utility bills, increased borrowing from family, friends or pawnbrokers, running down savings and using foodbanks or other forms of charity," Public Health Scotland said in a briefing paper on the research.
In one group, spending on alcohol went from the equivalent of R1,680 to more than R2,000 – per week.
Some heavy drinkers switched from high-alcohol ciders and beers to vodka, but "reducing alcohol consumption was often seen as a last resort".
Some of those around heavy drinkers said they feared an increase in violence due to the added financial pressure and the switch to stronger spirits, but researchers said they had found no evidence those fears were realised.
Minimum pricing did not seem to do much harm beyond that, with no evidence of switches to home-brewed booze or drugs, and no real increase in criminal activity to fund drinking – all of which had been cited as dangers of an MUP experiment.
But there was no evidence of increased health, or decreased alcohol dependence, either.
A "small minority" of people surveyed said the introduction of minimum pricing had contributed to them entering treatment for alcohol dependence, "but this was described as a modest contribution and one among many considerations."