On the 15th November 2017, the UK Supreme Court ruled that a Minimum Unit Price for alcohol was legal in Scotland. This ended a bitter court battle between the Scottish Government and the alcohol industry over this flagship Public Health policy which had been running since 2012, when the policy was first passed into law. ScHARR’s Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, including several modellers from HEDS, have played an integral part in this legal dispute, publishing a series of reports which addressed key questions at each stage of the legal process. These included: was Minimum Pricing effective; was it well targeted at the population at greatest risk of harm; and how would it impact on socioeconomic inequalities in health. For the Supreme Court the critical question was whether the introduction of Minimum Pricing, which had previously been adjudged to contravene EU laws on the free movement of goods, was a more proportionate means of addressing the Public Health burden of alcohol than more conventional approaches such as increasing alcohol taxes, in which case it would still be legal.
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ScHARR’s research (which you can read here) showed that this was indeed the case, with substantial tax rises of at least 28% being required to achieve the same impact as a 50p Minimum Unit Price, and with such a tax rise having a much greater effect on people drinking at moderate levels while failing to effectively target the heaviest drinkers, who disproportionately purchase the cheapest alcohol most affected by a Minimum Price. The Supreme Court’s ruling makes it clear that they found this modelling work extremely persuasive and it formed a key part of their decision making process.
With the policy scheduled to finally come into force on the 1st May this year, the Alcohol Research Group's most recent research suggests that Scotland is likely to see a significant fall in alcohol consumption (3.5%) and associated reductions in hospital admissions (6.8%) and deaths (7.4%) caused by alcohol, with the vast majority of these benefits accruing to heavy drinkers, particularly those on low incomes. The Supreme Court decision also has wider implications for Public Health policy in the UK beyond alcohol. As well as demonstrating that it is possible to implement strong Public Health approaches, even in the face of staunch opposition, the Supreme Court also made very clear the decision on whether a health policy is proportionate relative to its impact on free trade lies with politicians and not with the courts. This may open the way, where there is political will, for bold new policies in areas such as tobacco control and sugar taxes. Perhaps emboldened by Scotland's success, Wales, Ireland and, somewhat further afield, Australia's Northern Territory are already in the process of introducing their own Minimum Unit Price legislation