Minimum Unit Price Deters Heaviest Alcohol Purchasers
Alcohol use is one of the leading risk factors for non-communicable diseases and intentional and unintentional injuries, contributing to an estimated 3 million deaths each year. Setting a floor price on alcohol is considered by WHO to be one of the most cost-effective means to prevent and reduce the harm caused by alcohol products and associated health issues.
By use of large-scale panel data on alcohol purchasing obtained through product barcodes, Anderson and colleagues provide strong evidence that the introduction of a minimum unit price (MUP) might reduce off-trade alcohol purchases (eg, from shops or online) and consumption, seemingly despite COVID-19-associated changes, and that the effect is considerably concentrated in households that generally purchase the most alcohol.
This commentary article puts findings of the report by Anderson and colleagues into the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated measures. It also provides evidence in favor of the introduction of MUP.
A key question about MUP is whether the MUP can effectively reduce alcohol consumption among those who have heavy alcohol problems, who might not be sufficiently susceptible to price increases for it to make a substantial difference to their consumption. A further concern is that low-income groups might be unfairly penalized, or that they might spend more money on alcohol, increasing social inequalities. Findings of the study by Anderson and colleagues showed that MUP had produced greater reductions in quantities purchased in households that purchase larger amounts of alcohol, with no increase in alcohol expenditure among most low-income households. The study also shows that MUP can achieve similar reductions in different jurisdictions. Because MUP targets cheaper off-trade alcohol, it may help to reduce alcohol use particularly in those households that purchase higher volumes of cheaper alcohol.
The effectiveness of MUP has been seen in several countries in addition to Scotland and Wales, including several provinces in Canada, the Northern Territory in Australia, and some countries of the former Soviet Union. Compared with increasing alcohol taxes, the MUP is likely to be welcomed by on-trade venues, because the MUP would mainly affect prices of off-trade alcoholic beverages.
The past decade has seen decreases in alcohol consumption in many high-income countries (eg, Australia, the UK, the USA, and many European countries), but this decrease has been offset globally by the increased consumption in many Asian countries, particularly those that have weak alcohol control regulations, such as China and India. Compared with restriction of trading hours and outlet density and tax increases, the introduction of MUP could be more cost-effective and more affordable for low-income and middle-income countries to stem the tide of increasing consumption. Although this study shows that MUP affects alcohol purchasing, future studies should expand their remit to assess effects on alcohol consumption and associated harm.