Tuesday 7 June 2022

Minimum pricing in the mud

The latest report in the official minimum pricing evaluation was published by Public Health Scotland this morning. Today's report looks at perhaps the most important aspect of the policy - whether it helped people who drink at harmful levels. 
Several of the authors, including Petra Meier and John Holmes, were behind the Sheffield University modelling that led to the policy being implemented in the first place. This gave them a conflict of interest which, in my view, should have disqualified them from being on the evaluation team. Having said the policy was going to work, they have a clear incentive for making it look like it worked.

But whatever their incentive, they haven't been able to make a silk purse out of this pig's ear. The Scottish Government are going to put a brave face on it, but the report tells a story of failure.

  •  There is no clear evidence that MUP led to an overall reduction in alcohol consumption among people drinking at harmful levels or those with alcohol dependence, although some individuals did report reducing their consumption.
  • There is also no clear evidence that MUP led to a change in the severity of alcohol dependence symptoms among those presenting for treatment.

So much for minimum pricing being a policy that "exquisitely targets the heaviest drinkers".

  • People drinking at harmful levels who struggled to afford the higher prices arising from MUP coped by using, and often intensifying, strategies they were familiar with from previous periods when alcohol was unaffordable for them. These strategies typically included obtaining extra money, while reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort.
  • In line with the above, MUP led to increased financial strain for a substantial minority of those with alcohol dependence as they obtained extra money via methods including reduced spending on food and utility bills, increased borrowing from family, friends or pawnbrokers, running down savings or other capital, and using foodbanks or other forms of charity.

Just like some of us warned.

  • Some people with alcohol dependence and their family members reported concerns about increased intoxication after they switched to consuming spirits rather than cider. In some of these cases, people also expressed concerns about increased violence. 

This is the 'public health' policy that just keeps on giving, isn't it? Well worth £270 million.

The termination of WP4 [work package 4] meant the project could not explore in detail the impact of MUP on the health of people drinking at harmful levels. However, the remaining WPs did not find any evidence of changes in the general health of people this group.

So no evidence of a reduction in alcohol consumption among harmful drinkers as a whole, no evidence of a reduction in the severity of alcohol dependence and no evidence of an improvement in health, but plenty of evidence of increased financial problems, substitution effects and reductions in spending on household essentials, and some evidence of an increase in drunkenness and violence. We also know from previous research that there was no impact on crime, A & E attendances or hospital admissions.

I don't remember any of this being projected in the models, do you?

This report should be the final nail in the coffin of minimum pricing. As the authors note and anyone could have predicted, "reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort". The Scots shouldn't wait another two years for the sunset clause to kick in. They should get rid of this dreadful regressive policy now.

The Times notes that the report was released to the press, under embargo, three hours before the confidence vote in Boris Johnson yesterday and that Public Health Scotland "risk-scores its publications by their potential for political embarrassment to the government". Good day to bury bad news, Nicola? 

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