Minimum Unit Pricing: Scotland's new reality
As Scotland rolls out Minimum Unit Pricing, Tom Bruce-Gardyne considers the motives and the likely consequences...
In the brilliant Hollywood satire ‘Thank you for Smoking’ the chief lobbyists for Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol and firearms meet every Friday for lunch in Washington as the MOD squad, or ‘merchants of death’.
In the real-world, certainly in Britain, there has never been any bonding between the booze industry and tobacco, although the public health campaigns against both have always seemed remarkably similar.
Politically, Scotland won the race to become the first part of the UK to ban smoking in public places in 2006, and it has just restated its progressive credentials by being the first to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol. With the last legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) defeated in November, the cheapest 70 cl bottle of Scotch in Scotland jumped to £14 in May.
Rather than rehash the arguments that rumbled on for almost ten years, it is worth considering the motives behind MUP and whether there’s a faint whiff of temperance. Is it simply about reducing harm, or is it more about returning to those halcyon days in the 1950s when Scots drank half what they do today? Of course, 50p a unit won’t achieve that, but then who’s to say it will stay at that level?
One thing is clear; it will hit the consumption of Scotch whisky north of the border. When AC Nielsen analysed sales data from nearly 1,200 stores in Scotland in 2016, it found that the price of the average bottle of whisky would increase by 20% and more than any other spirit. So much for the Scottish government’s oft-repeated claim that Scotch will be relatively unscathed.
Then there’s the risk of contagion with other country’s following Scotland’s lead on MUP just like the smoking ban. The day MUP came into force a headline in The Scotsman declared 'Eyes of world on Scotland' - this being a quote from First Minsiter, Nicola Sturgeon. If you can forgive the hubris, it’s worth remembering that the Welsh Assembly plans to introduce MUP this year, and that it could become law in Ireland by Easter. Canada’s Professor Tim Stockwell, a tireless campaigner for unit pricing, calls the Scottish move ‘a game changer’ and claims that there are 11 countries that have contemplated, or are contemplating, some form of MUP.
Time will tell, but for now it will be interesting to see how the Scotch whisky companies respond to the price hike at the bottom in Scotland. Some say it will be the death of own-label whisky, and limit the amount of discounting which may be no bad thing. It is an open secret that supermarkets have been selling spirits at, or below cost to drive footfall to their stores. If it boosted Scotch sales it probably tarnished the brands in the process.
At present the Scots drink around a fifth of the Scotch sold in the UK. If that proportion falls, maybe its image will rise as the trade becomes more imaginative in the way it promotes whisky. The SWA and its members will have incurred serious legal costs in the fight against MUP, but they probably had little choice. As C.S. Lewis put it, and he could have been referring to the public health lobby: “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom is a regular columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and the new Scotch Whisky Treasures.
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