Monday 6 March 2017

The hydra-headed monster by Paul Chase

I thought I would return to the fray with a new twist on an old theme – minimum unit pricing (MUP). Readers of my articles may recall the legality of a minimum unit price for alcohol is an issue that has been batted back and forth between the Scottish government and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) since 2012. The Scottish courts had their say (legal); it was referred to the European Court of Justice (not legal). But the ECJ left the final decision to the Scottish courts, which needed to be convinced there was no other, less trade-restrictive way of achieving the Scottish government’s health objectives in respect of alcohol if they were to conclude it was, after all, “legal” to impose a minimum price on a unit of alcohol.

They promptly did so when the Scottish government provided them with the latest research findings from the boys and girls at Sheffield University, whose modelling forms the basis of all the claims made for this measure. So, game, set and match? Well, not quite. The SWA has appealed the Scottish court’s decision to the Supreme Court in London. They have been rather busy of late considering whether the UK government has to get parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty to take us out of the European Union. But the little matter of MUP is likely to be ruled on around June this year.

Meanwhile, the authors of the Sheffield model haven’t been sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Oh no! They’ve been modelling the effect of an MUP of 50p on alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in Northern Ireland. A charity called Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke said raising the minimum price paid for booze would save lives, lower hospital admissions and cut the costs of crime by £20m a year. Neil Johnston from the charity said: “Alcohol sold for less than 50p a unit makes up the majority of alcohol purchased by high-risk drinkers. Work by Sheffield University shows that pushing up the price of very cheap alcohol will reduce consumption of it by high-risk drinkers and bring considerable benefits. Introducing a minimum unit price of 50p is estimated to save 63 lives a year and result in almost 2,500 fewer hospital admissions.” Very impressive, but do the figures stack up? It is informative to compare Sheffield University’s predictions for Northern Ireland with its predictions for Scotland:

• How can it be that a 50p MUP saves three fewer lives each year in Scotland than in Northern Ireland, despite the fact Scotland has 3.6 million more people than Northern Ireland? And, in terms of alcohol-related hospital admissions, nearly twice as many of these are saved in Northern Ireland despite the fact Northern Ireland’s population is only a third of Scotland’s!

• It is interesting to note that MUP as a policy has been enthusiastically and uncritically supported by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whereas in England the UK government’s view has been much more sceptical. The “healthiest” agenda tends to receive much more support by governments that are relatively new, struggling for legitimacy or relevance, and for whom embracing policies that claim to improve the “health of the nation” gives them an opportunity to promote themselves as standing up for the interests of “the people” and against those of big business – in this case Big Alcohol.

It remains to be seen whether the UK Supreme Court will risk being labelled “enemies of the people” by yet again standing up for rationality and finding against MUP. In this “fake fact” world, where an appeal to prejudice is seemingly all that is needed to identify a large constituency of support that will rise up vociferously, it seems to me we need some unelected judges who aren’t afraid to tell us the truth.

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