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COVER STORY – MUP sees off white cider in Scotland

Data suggests price policy has all but wiped out the bottom end of the market

Ale saw an 8.3% volume increase

16 April 2019 – Sales data suggests a decrease in cider sales in Scotland since the introduction of minimum unit pricing there last May. The decrease is particularly pronounced for cheap, white ciders, with 'IRI data for the 40 subsequent weeks to February 2019 [showing] value white cider down 73.3%... year on year.' Own label alcohol products of all kinds also saw decreasing sales.

Overall, volume sales are up. Nielsen data published in The Times shows that '203.5 million litres of alcohol was purchased from shops in Scotland over the 46 weeks to March 29, an increase of 1.8 million litres — the equivalent of four million cans of lager or 2.4 million bottles of wine — on the same period in 2017-18'.

Some products have seen a rise in sales in the same period, including the tonic wine Buckfast, which was not affected by the pricing policy. Ale saw a 8.3% volume increase in the 12 weeks before February. Premium and craft cider sales have also increased, seeing some cider manufacturers speaking out in support of the policy. Speaking to Drinks Retailing News (DRN), Westons's Head of Business, Darryl Hinksman, said: 'MUP has premiumised the category and taken units out of the Scottish cider market. It is killing off this bottom end. We think it’s a good thing.'

Independent and smaller retailers are also benefitting from the policy, as it has closed the price differential between them and supermarkets, who were previously able to undercut them. Mumtaz Ali, who owns an Edinburgh branch of Mace, told DRN: 'I am sure the independent sector for alcohol is up in general since MUP. It’s very encouraging. Even in spirits I can now sell the cheapest vodka in my store at the same price as you would find in a supermarket. It doesn’t seem to have put people off buying alcohol but I don’t think there has been a negative effect either. It gives us a better margin.'

Some commentators have suggested that the overall increase in volume sales immediately after the policy’s introduction run counter to the predictions made in modelling the policy from the University fo Sheffield. The Scottish Conservatives have been particularly vocal in their criticism of the policy. Speaking to The Times, spokesperson Annie Wells said: 'A year on, these figures are hardly moving in the right direction. Itʼs important we keep an eye on this and do not assume minimum pricing is going to work on its own. And if it continues to be ineffective, it will have to be revoked.' However their assertions overlook the fact that volume sales do not necessarily translate into increases in unit consumption – purchase patterns may have changed.

The policy remains supported by Scottish alcohol charities. Alcohol Focus Scotland Chief Executive Alison Douglas stated her confidence in the measure, and that evaluation of the policy would show 'minimum unit pricing delivers clear benefits'. Ultimately, it is important to note that robust and reliable analysis of the data takes time, and NHS Scotland won’t be publishing its official evaluation of the policy until the end of the year.

On the anniversary of MUP's implementation, IAS Policy Analyst Aveek Bhattacharya's assessment of the policy found that: natural volume sales rose initially over the summer in Scotland, and have been flat/fallen since; unit sales were flat/rose modestly over the summer, and may have fallen since; and alcohol sales growth has been higher in England than in Scotland, suggesting that MUP 'restrained alcohol consumption over a period when it would otherwise have risen and may yet bring about reductions in consumption'.

'Either way, if MUP had this effect on the heavier drinking population, it will have reduced health harms and saved lives,' he wrote. 'Over the coming months and years, as we get more transparent data and rigorous analysis, we will have a better idea.'

You can listen to Alcohol Focus Scotland Chair Alison Douglas explain what we can learn from the data released so far on the IAS SoundCloud page (also read the AFS explainer for more information on the policy).