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Harpers’ poll on MUP reveals a trade divided

Published:  11 December, 2017

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling on minimum unit pricing (MUP) in Scotland, giving the go ahead for its introduction on May 1 after a five-year battle with the Scotch Whisky Association, there can be no doubt that proponents in Northern Ireland, Wales and England will redouble calls for its introduction throughout the UK.

Backers of minimum unit pricing – the health lobby and many politicians most prominent among them – have long argued that its introduction will reduce some of the worst problem drinking by penalising the cheapest, strongest alcoholic drinks, and thus discourage those same problem drinkers by removing access to alcohol that can be cheaper than bottled water.

In Scotland, where alcohol abuse is a pressing health issue, Vino Wine Shop responded to the news by tweeting: “…the Scottish industry who oppose this should hang their heads and skulk off to a corner to be quiet”, capturing some of the mood of replies from indies in our UK-wide poll.

Many indies, and their quality-driven, higher priced on-trade counterparts, understandably believe that MUP will possibly be a benefit to their businesses, helping level the playing field with multiples and convenience stores that currently devalue the market by selling very cheap, high-strength alcohol.

“Minimum pricing helps get rid of the dangerous fallacy that alcohol is an almost costless everyday social lubricant,” was a typical comment made by a pro-MUP respondent.

MUP’s detractors vehemently disagree, however, arguing that not only does this represent an additional tax on less well-off drinkers who consume at moderate levels, but that it will have little effect on problem drinkers, who will find the money to support their habit regardless of further strains this will put on personal and family finances.

“The majority of customers do not have a problem with their drinking and they will be paying a penalty for something they enjoy. The minority that do have a problem will just cut back on other essentials and still get their drink,” said one of those polled.

Many opponents also argue that a 50p minimum per unit could “open the floodgates” for future MUP increases now that the principle has been established in Scotland.

Addressing the real issue

“MUP does not address the issue of problem drinking and disproportionately affects moderate drinkers. At a time when the industry is facing unprecedented pressures from all sides, an unnecessary price increase is hugely unwelcome,” was a typical response from MUP opponents.

Doubtless the arguments will run and run, but the reality is that MUP is now here and, unless it proves ineffective in Scotland and is reversed in five years’ time, those pushing for its introduction across the UK will likely win the day.

As Berry Bros & Rudd’s chief executive Dan Jago has pointed out, this is a “complex” issue and the trade will perhaps best be served by working with government on any such legislation south of the border.

Having become established, the danger of MUP rising unreasonably in the future is real – and this is an understandable concern of many in the trade. However, the ongoing sale of the lowest priced alcohol also does nothing to help the commonly voiced trade-wide wish to add value back into the category, which is perhaps why MUP has been greeted with fewer howls of dismay than expected.

Keeping an open mind

“I am open-minded on the legislation at the moment until I get a better understanding of how it works,” says Ian Cumming, commercial director at Scotland-based Inverarity Morton. “Any measures to combat issues of irresponsible alcohol consumption are obviously welcomed… but there is no one single ‘silver bullet’ to address the issue.

“In theory it should only be the low-price, high-strength products that will be adversely affected, which may be not be a bad thing, but we still need to see how this will work,” he added.

Cumming’s measured response concurs with the mood of many suppliers on both sides of the border – and especially those that are focused on more premium sales. These are companies that typically espouse a responsible approach to the promotion and selling of alcohol, but are continually being undercut in their efforts by purveyors of low-rent booze designed to deliver the greatest “hit” possible at the cheapest price.

Those that respond with portents of the demise of the trade are arguably doing the collective drinks business few favours. Creating a damaging “us and them” division risks keeping the drinks industry on the back foot, ultimately playing into the hands of opponents, armed as they are with the criticism that certain alcohol suppliers are selling a drug far too cheaply to some of the most vulnerable in society.

As our survey suggests, MUP may not be the ideal solution – or something the trade wished for – but neither is it a disaster for those that value premium alcohol sales and wish to work in a responsible fashion, while raising the quality bar.


Our poll of Harpers UK-wide readership revealed that a majority of independent merchants back the principle of MUP and believe that it will have a positive effect on their businesses, with the second largest number of indie respondents falling into the “not sure” category for both. 

Similarly, on-trade operators were also largely of the opinion that MUP can only have a positive effect (if any) on spend in on-trade premises, with the only likely discernable effect being that “pre-loading” before heading out to a pub, bar or restaurant might decrease. 

Multiple and convenience operators, along with those supplying drinks likely to be hit by MUP, were far less vocal, but also far less likely to be positive about the outcome when they did speak out. Such businesses raised a range of issues, from the penalty imposed on poorer members of society, to the bunching of differing quality level drinks at the new entry level, plus the danger of an upward creep of MUP, to a denouncement of the “nanny state”.