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Minimum Unit Pricing

Minimum unit pricing not UK wide

The Supreme Court has backed the Scottish decision to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) but let’s consider how we got here and what’s next.

Having faced historical concerns that stronger and cheaper alcohol continues to be favoured by heavy drinkers, that alcohol related admissions into hospitals increased year on year and admissions for liver disease and alcohol poisoning had substantially increased, the Scottish Parliament introduced legislation in 2012 setting a minimum price below which a unit of alcohol cannot be legally sold, with the aim to reduce consumption of cheap, high strength alcohol by heavy drinkers.

Although in Scotland the issue was and still remains widespread, some argued that this move would mainly penalise moderate and responsible drinkers rather than tackling the deeper social and economic issues causing drug dependency.

The Scotch Whisky Association’s challenge has ended at the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that measures to introduce MUP were a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” and that minimum pricing targeted “the health hazards of cheap alcohol and the groups more affected in a way that an increase in excise or VAT does not”. As one can appreciate, this was to the delight of Scottish Ministers who believe the 50p per unit minimum will help to improve public health, especially amongst those with a high alcohol dependency.

The Welsh Government also welcomed the decision having already developed an appetite to introduce a similar law in 2018. However, the Government in Westminster has taken a more cautious approach in light of powerful arguments for and against such legislation, with concerns that the issues faced in Scotland are not as prevalent in England.

Many feel that MUP may now be implemented in Scotland by way of a mandatory condition on all Scottish premises licences.  This seems to be the most logical method. However, adopting the same process could present some difficulties if Wales, in the absence of England, adopts MUP and seeks to implement it by the imposition of conditions, regulated by the Licensing Act 2003 which applies to both England and Wales. It would appear that the Welsh government will have to seek a method of applying MUP purely to Welsh Premises Licences.

However, we are where we are, and in Scotland cheaper alcohol and spirits such as vodka and blended scotch whiskys not meeting MUP could face price ‘hikes’. As a consequence, we could see an increase in bulk buying of alcohol prior to the legislation being implemented and after implementation, continued purchases from England and Wales until or unless MUP is introduced.

It therefore waits to be seen, whether Westminster follows in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales or whether Berwick-upon-Tweed becomes the new Calais.

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