Scots suffering the worst affects of alcoholism did not change their drinking habits once minimum pricing was introduced, with some of the poorest cutting back on food and energy so they could continue to buy drink, a study has found.
Among those drinking at harmful levels or those with alcohol dependence the study, published on Tuesday by Public Health Scotland, found no clear evidence of a change in consumption or severity of dependence once minimum unit pricing (MUP) was introduced.
And the research found that some economically vulnerable groups experienced increased financial strain as the price rises meant they were spending more on alcohol.
This led some people who were dependent on alcohol to reduce other expenditure, such as that on food and utilities.
Minimum unit pricing came into force on May 1 2018 and requires all licensed premises in Scotland to set a floor price of 50p per unit of alcohol.
It was introduced in an attempt to reduce alcohol-related harms, including death, crime and unemployment, by raising the price of the cheap, off-trade alcohol purchased in supermarkets and off-licences.
Professor John Holmes, who led the research, said previous studies had shown minimum pricing had reduced alcohol sales but this one showed “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,” said the director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group and University of Sheffield professor.
“It is important that alcohol treatment services and other organisations find ways to support those who do have financial problems, particularly as inflation rises.”
As part of the study by the University of Sheffield, the University of Newcastle (Australia), and Figure 8 Consultancy Services, researchers found there was also no clear evidence minimum pricing caused negative consequences, such as increased crime, a shift to the use of illicit substances or acute withdrawal, among Scots drinking at harmful levels.
Helen Chung Patterson, public health intelligence adviser at Public Health Scotland, said the research “further develops our understanding of and insights into this important population and how they have responded” to minimum unit pricing.
“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,” she said.
“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 has the potential to benefit the most from MUP but may also continue to experience harms.”
Laura Mahon, deputy chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, welcomed the report and said it was “encouraging to see that there do not appear to be widespread negative consequences on dependent drinkers”.
“However, this study gives us much needed information about the additional support required by the groups included in the research,” she said.
“We need real investment in recovery-oriented alcohol services to ensure people get the right support when they need it, wherever they live.
“This must include helping people cope with some of the underlying reasons why they developed an alcohol problem, but also the ongoing issues they face.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said it would “carefully consider the findings”.
“The aim of the study was to contribute evidence to the wider evaluation programme which will conclude next year including a robust review of any potential consequences of the policy,” the spokesman said.
“This report shows there is no clear evidence of wider negative consequences such as switching to drugs, stealing alcohol or harms due to acute withdrawal.
“In the 12 months following the introduction of MUP and before the pandemic, there was a 2% decrease in off-trade alcohol sales and a 10% decrease in alcohol specific deaths in 2019 although the latest statistics for 2020 showed increases in alcohol specific deaths across the UK, with an increase of 17% in Scotland.
“It is too early to know whether the changed drinking behaviours during the pandemic are temporary or not, however work on reviewing the level of the minimum unit price MUP is under way.
“It is important this work is carried out thoroughly to ensure any change to the level has a robust evidence base.”