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Calls for Northern Ireland MUP to create a ‘level playing field’

Published:  16 August, 2022

Northern Ireland appears to be inching closer to the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol after neighbours Republic of Ireland and Scotland introduced the legislation in January 2022 and May 2018, respectively. 

The move will come as a relief to many ROI retailers that feared customers would go across the border to purchase alcohol where the MUP was not in place.

Following the introduction of MUP in ROI, a paper was published by the Department of Finance Tax Strategy Group, warning the government that shoppers may look to NI to buy their alcohol. 

In this scenario, the MUP would act as a deterrent for consumers in ROI, arguably one of the primary objectives of the scheme. However, if customers continued to buy alcohol across the border, the potential health benefits would be squandered, and the ROI government wouldn’t receive alcohol duty on the sales.

Now, a groundswell of support appears to be growing from independent retailers, too, with the Federation of Independent Retailers (FED) arguing that such a scheme will help to facilitate fairer competition between indies and multiples across the board.

Joe Archibald, the Fed’s president for Northern Ireland, said: “One of the main benefits of MUP for smaller retailers with off-licences is the fact that the big multiples and supermarkets will have to charge the same prices, so they will no longer be able to undercut independents by selling cheaper alcohol as loss leaders. This should level things up and give everyone a fair crack of the whip.”

MUP in Scotland

In October 2018, Harpers reported that alcohol sales in English supermarkets close to the Scottish border had spiked following the introduction of MUP in Scotland. The Foresight Economics study, conducted on behalf of NHS Scotland, discovered that one retailer had reported a 40% rise in sales, while a second saw a 25% increase between May and July last year.

However, from a health standpoint, evidence suggests the scheme has had a positive impact. 

According to a study published by the British Medical Journal in September 2019, weekly alcohol consumption was down 1.2 units per adult per household in Scotland – the equivalent of 7.6%.

Despite this, the jury is still out on the scheme and its effectiveness in tackling the heaviest drinkers. 

Research conducted by BMJ Open in July 2022 found that consumption increased among the 5% of heaviest drinkers following the introduction of MUP. 

"Our results indicate that this goal may not be fully realised: First, we found that women, who are less heavy drinkers in our data and in almost all surveys worldwide to date, reduced their consumption more than men; second, the 5% of heaviest drinking men had an increase in consumption associated with MUP; and, third, younger men and men living in more deprived areas had no decrease in consumption associated with MUP,” the researchers noted.