The Alcohol Health Alliance UK was launched 15 years ago.
Across the four nations, there have been great policy successes and pitfalls over that time. In this blog series, we look back on the progress that has been made to help reduce alcohol harm across the UK and reflect upon what needs to happen next.
In this edition, Andrew Misell of Alcohol Change UK examines how alcohol policy has changed in Wales during the lifetime of the AHA.
It’s probably fair to say that, until quite recently, a lot of people in England were not in the habit of paying much attention to what was going on in Wales’ Senedd. Two years living in a UK with four different COVID-19 control systems has changed all that and shown us all what a big difference devolution can make to the way things are done. But, in truth, public policy in Wales and England had been diverging long before the pandemic, and one area where the approach in Wales differed significantly from England was alcohol.
The first big difference in Wales was how the problem was defined. In England there were always two strategies: one for alcohol and one for illicit drugs. The first of these tended to be focussed on making sure the public were informed about alcohol and didn’t indulge in “binge drinking”. The second often had a big focus on crime. In Wales there was a single, unified substance misuse strategy, and as its name suggested, the focus was on harm reduction. There was a refreshing honesty in the acknowledgment that alcohol – however commonplace it may be in many of our lives – is a substance much like many others in terms of its potential dangers. In fact, the strategy recognised that “the harmful use of alcohol in Wales is far more widespread than that of illegal drugs and other substances”.
One of ways proposed to reduce that “harmful use” was to address the price of alcohol. The strategy included a promise to “press the case for consideration of reducing demand by introducing minimum pricing”. If that sounds a little non-committal, the legal consensus when the strategy was published in 2008 was that the Welsh Government did not have the power to bring in such a measure; that power would have to be requested from the UK Government. In 2012, the UK Government’s new alcohol strategy promised “a minimum unit price” (MUP) which would apply across England and Wales. What we got instead, in 2013, was a largely meaningless ban on selling alcohol for less than the total of tax and duty payable on it. Meanwhile, however, the Scottish Government had pushed ahead with its own Alcohol Act in 2012, paving the way for a system of minimum unit pricing north of Hadrian’s Wall. In the Scottish case, there was no ambiguity about powers: MUP in Scotland was a matter for Holyrood not Westminster.
As many readers of this blog will know, what followed was five years of legal challenges by the Scotch Whisky Association, who claimed that MUP was a breach of EU free-trade rules. Scotland’s MUP woes, though, were a blessing for Wales. By taking the matter all the way to the European Court of Justice and the UK Supreme Court, the alcohol industry secured clarification that MUP did not breach EU law and was a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. Nine months after the Supreme Court gave the Scottish law its seal of approval in November 2017, it was also law in Wales, with implementation scheduled for early 2020.
Just as in Scotland, there was some political caution in Wales. Whilst voting for the Welsh MUP measure, the Welsh Conservatives warned of a “raft of unintended consequences that could flow from this Bill” and Plaid Cymru voiced “doubts in terms of why we are doing this and how effective this will be”. On the shelves of Wales’ off-licences, the effects of the Act were immediate and obvious as soon as it came into force on 2 March 2022. Whereas pre-MUP, you could get a big three-litre bottle of 7.5% white cider for £3.99 – just 18p per unit – with an MUP of 50p per unit, a one-litre bottles of the same cider now cost almost as much. That three-litre bottle could not now be sold for less than £11. Since that is not an economically viable price for this product, the three-litre bottle of white cider is no longer a thing in Wales. Given the widespread observation that “most of the customers for white cider seem to be either dependent drinkers or children”, it’s a change worth celebrating.
Clearly, MUP is will only ever be one part of the jigsaw. Alongside measures focussed on price and availability, we need to ensure that people can get the support they need to reduce the alcohol harm in their lives: various treatment options, peer-support, and support for families too. During last the two years, we’ve seen an increase in the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, increases in various types of alcohol-related harm, and horrendous pressures on the families of people with alcohol problems. Looking forwards, our aim has to be to learn the lessons what’s happened and to continue make the case for a range of measures that will help more people live free of alcohol harm.
Written by Andrew Misell
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.