Unintended consequences?

The Public Health (Minimum Unit Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Scotch Whisky Association and others  v The Lord Advocate and another [1] the Welsh Government has shown itself keen to mirror Scotland’s minimum unit pricing law for alcohol sales.

But the expressed aim of minimum pricing, namely, to strike at alcohol misuse and overconsumption as particularly manifest in the health and social problems suffered by those in poverty in deprived communities, may not be as easily achieved as it is stated.

The Welsh Assembly’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has voiced concerns that higher alcohol prices may, perversely, have a negative impact on dependent drinkers. The Committee heard evidence from witnesses who attend alcohol recovery centres who said that minimum unit pricing would not necessarily deter them from excessive drinking; and it was even postulated that higher prices could cause some to turn to drugs as a cheaper alternative.

The response of the Welsh Government is that the Bill is aimed at those classed as “hazardous and harmful drinkers”, who consume more than the recommended guidelines, rather than alcoholics. That statement does not sit easily, however, with the justification for a minimum unit pricing policy as given by the Supreme Court in the Scotch Whisky case, and summarised in the second paragraph above.

The chairman of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee said:

“The committee welcomes the principle outlined in the Bill and believes minimum unit pricing will go some way to improving the health of a significant cohort of the Welsh population.

We have some concerns about unintended consequences, including the possibility of driving heavy drinkers towards other behaviours which negatively affect their health, including diverting money away from food in order to purchase alcohol or substituting alcohol for unregulated, illegal substances.

We are also not convinced by the Welsh Government’s position that this Bill will not impact heavy drinkers and alcoholics.”

Evaluation of the legislation (should it be enacted) is obviously critical, and Assembly Members have suggested that the Welsh Government should look to the early experience of minimum unit pricing in Scotland, when it begins in May, as an indicator of what to expect in Wales.

Minimum Unit Pricing / Reduction in FOBT Stakes & Prizes

To my mind, there is a parallel to be found with proposals imminently to be announced in the field of gambling regulation. It has been suggested that the reduction in stakes and prizes on FOBTs will only drive hardened gamblers (who the measures are aimed at protecting) to look for alternative outlets for their addiction. Driving them to on-line gambling sites may well do more harm than good.

Inevitably, there is a considerable element of ‘wait and see’ in these proposals to restrict – ostensibly for their own good – the drinking and gambling choices of adult men and women.  I will, of course, be as glad as the next man to learn that a reduction in stakes/prizes on FOBTs has improved the lives of problem gamblers – but I am not holding my breath; and I look to be persuaded by evidence (rather than ‘holier than thou’ speculation) that minimum unit pricing will improve the health of the nation.

Nanny may be well intentioned, but those in her charge are often one step ahead of her.

Gerald Gouriet QC

See also: Minimum Unit Pricing Wales




[1] [2017] UKSC 76