Minimum unit pricing: how will it affect us, and will it be effective?

Critics and proponents of the policy disagree on what its impact will be

Supermarkets and shops are full of alcohol on display. Going into your local supermarket, it’s not difficult to find your preferred drink, no matter what it is. Ireland is a country known for its drinking culture worldwide, but recently, the prices of these drinks have been a point of conversation in Ireland.

In early January, a minimum legal price for alcohol was set. How much did your favourite bottle of beer or spirit cost last year? The price will likely not be the same in 2022. The Irish government says that it hopes to tackle social issues and address the country’s infamous drinking culture. It intends to reduce alcohol consumption by raising its price. But will it be effective?

As part of the 2018 Public Health Act, the Irish government has imposed a policy minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcoholic beverages. It states that the lowest price for a gram of pure alcohol sold in a shop is now 10 cents. Supermarkets and other stores are not allowed to sell alcohol for less than that price. One standard drink in Ireland (approximately one measure of spirits, half a pint of beer, or one glass of wine) consists of 10 grams of alcohol, meaning a minimum price of one euro. In accordance with MUP, a bottle of wine that contains 14% alcohol by volume must now be sold for €8.28 or more. A 70ml bottle of 43% spirits will now have a minimum price of €23.75. The more alcohol a beverage contains, the more it will have to cost.

This is not the first measure implemented under the Public Health Act; this act also restricts alcohol advertisements, requires health warning labels on alcoholic drinks, and bans many special offers and sales on alcohol in shops.

MUP has also been pitched as a tool to fight alcohol-related social issues. By raising the price of strong or particularly cheap alcohol, the motive is clear: to reduce the amount of such drinks that any person can buy and consume.

However, for many alcoholic drinks, the prices will not change. Take whiskey as an example: a bottle at 40% alcohol which in 2021 cost €21 will remain the same, even with MUP implemented. This is also true for sparkling wine. In 2021, a bottle of cheap prosecco might cost €7.40. That price will also remain unchanged. Things will also not change for drinks sold in restaurants and pubs. These places generally already sell alcohol that costs more than one euro per standard drink.

“According to a report from the World Health Organisation, Ireland has the second-highest rate of binge drinking in the world.”

But heavy, habitual drinkers are the main target of MUP, according to its proponents.  Heavy drinkers often buy the cheapest alcohol available, and will theoretically have less access to it when it costs more.

According to a study conducted by the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, cited by the Health Service Executive (HSE), MUP is expected to reduce overall alcohol consumption by 9% in Ireland. Scotland already introduced MUP in 2018, becoming the first country in the world to do so, and sales of alcohol decreased by 7.7%, with results “largely restricted” to those who previously bought the most. This data suggests that there is some truth to the idea that MUP can tackle heavy drinking.

Another aim is to prevent binge drinking. According to a report from the World Health Organisation, Ireland has the second-highest rate of binge drinking in the world. The data says that 59% of all Irish people aged 15 and above have indulged in binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as drinking six standard drinks in one single drinking session.

But the issue lies not only with binge drinking. Alcohol consumption of all kinds starts at an early age in Ireland, despite it being illegal to sell to children. Under-25s report having had their first drink at an average age of 14.3 years, and by the time Irish children are 17 years old, 82% have begun drinking.

How does MUP tie into this? The HSE says that the policy is “one of a number of public health measures being introduced under this legislation, all aimed at reducing the harm that alcohol causes to our society”. In Europe, the average alcohol consumption per capita was 9.5 litres in 2019. In Ireland, it was 12.75. The government hopes MUP will help to change this.

But how well will it work, and will there be other consequences? The logic behind the policy is that people buy less alcohol as it becomes more expensive, as they can afford less of it. But various studies have shown that high-earning professionals tend to drink more alcohol than average-income households. And for people with dependencies or addictions, demand is inelastic: they can’t just choose to drink less.

“Critics note that the increase in price is not a tax and will not, therefore, go to fund addiction or health services but simply boost the profit margins of producers and retailers.”

There’s also the issue of people simply avoiding shops. If the price of alcohol is raised, it could open the door for illegal deals. Alternatively, instead of buying expensive alcohol in Ireland, people may stock up in Northern Ireland.

Critics of the policy have argued that it will not meaningfully address addiction. They note that the increase in price is not a tax and will not, therefore, go to fund addiction or health services but simply boost the profit margins of producers and retailers. Many have also expressed worry that people with alcohol dependencies will continue to buy as much as they can even at a higher price, potentially causing financial issues for them and their families.

There is some data to support this view. The study of Scotland which tracked a reduction in consumption also noted that the overall amount of money spent on alcohol by high-consuming households actually increased. Those households generally consumed less, but the price increase was sufficiently large that they still had to spend more money.

It also noted that specifically among households that were both the most prolific consumers of alcohol and the lowest income, consumption actually did not decrease at all. Those high-consumption, low-income households were also compelled to spend an average of 25% more on alcohol each time they purchased it. To put it another way, the people arguably most vulnerable to the harmful effects of high alcohol consumption did not consume any less and were put under increased financial strain.

Whether you do or don’t support MUP, other measures to combat unhealthy usage of alcohol will be necessary. Drinkaware recommends teaching children early on about the HSE’s low-risk weekly guidelines on alcohol consumption. According to the organisation, many people are not aware of these guidelines and therefore how risky their consumption pattern may be.

The overall effects of the policy in Ireland remain to be seen, but what’s certain is that your cans will be more expensive in future.