University of Sheffield: New research report reveals the impact of pricing on people drinking at harmful levels

The University of Sheffield has been working with Public Health Scotland (PHS) to assess the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol purchasing and consumption. The final report, published today (7 June 2022), comes from a study which evaluated the impact on people who drink alcohol at harmful levels, including those dependent on alcohol and those accessing treatment services.

The University of Sheffield, the University of Newcastle (Australia) and Figure 8 Consultancy Services carried out the wide-ranging study to understand how this important, yet hard-to-reach population responded to MUP. A large programme of mixed-methods research was used to examine impacts on alcohol purchasing and consumption, other positive and negative effects of the policy, and the impact on key groups, such as family members or those living in remote or rural areas.

Among those drinking at harmful levels or people with alcohol dependence, the study found no clear evidence of a change in consumption or severity of dependence. Findings also showed 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.

There was little evidence found of other negative consequences in this population following the introduction of MUP, such as increased crime, a shift to the use of illicit substances or acute withdrawal. People with alcohol dependence were also found to have a limited awareness and understanding of MUP and reported receiving little information or support before its introduction.

Professor John Holmes, Professor of Alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, who led the overall study said:

“We know from previous studies that MUP reduced alcohol sales, including among those who bought the most alcohol before the policy. Our study shows 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. It is important that alcohol treatment services and other organisations find ways to support those who do have financial problems, particularly as inflation rises.”

Helen Chung Patterson, Public Health Intelligence Adviser at Public Health Scotland, said:

“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. 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 have the potential to benefit the most from MUP but may also continue to experience harms.

“This research further develops our understanding of and insights into this important population and how they have responded to MUP across a broad range of areas. It’s crucial to build the evidence base in this area as part of our overall evaluation of MUP.”