SCOTLAND’S world-leading minimum unit pricing (MUP) is saving "significantly" more lives than could have been expected but much more needs to be done to turn the tide on alcohol deaths, a charity boss has said.

New research published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet suggests 156 deaths per year on average in Scotland may have been prevented due to the policy, which places a minimum charge of 50p on each unit of alcohol.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said the results of the study were “absolutely amazing” and go way beyond what was anticipated from the original modelling by the University of Sheffield.

But she insisted MUP must be uprated to continue being effective amid rising inflation while curbing alcohol marketing would be another key policy to stopping a worrying rise in alcohol deaths in recent years.

MUP was brought in in 2018 but over the past couple of years, alcohol deaths have shot up by an alarming 22%.

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Douglas also said she hopes the UK Government will consider bringing in MUP to ensure there is no temptation for Scots to travel to England in search of cheaper booze – though there has been little evidence so far this has been taking place.

“The purpose of MUP was to save lives, so these results are absolutely amazing,” said Douglas.

“They’re significantly higher than we had reason to expect. The original modelling from Sheffield estimated in the first year of MUP, 60 lives would be saved, and that it would take 20 years to build to 121 lives being saved."

The fact that MUP has saved at least "two and a half times" the number of lives expected is "fantastic news", Douglas added. 

“I think the other aspect of this is that it’s having such a significant effect on inequalities.

"It’s people in our poorest communities that suffer [the] greatest harm from alcohol and it’s those communities that are benefitting most from MUP.

“But while this research is showing us that 156 people a year who would’ve died due to alcohol have not died, alcohol deaths are still at a very high level and that over the past couple of years, they’ve gone up.

“So deaths haven’t gone down in the last two years because of MUP, they’re just less high than they would’ve been without MUP.”

The National: Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus ScotlandAlison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland

The latest study was carried out by researchers from Public Health Scotland (PHS), the University of Glasgow and the University of Queensland in Australia.

Researchers also found that significant reductions in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol consumption were greatest for men and for those living in the 40% most socio-economically deprived areas of Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament is due to vote on whether MUP should continue before May 1 next year and Douglas said the study proves it is a policy which must be made permanent.

But she added an index-linked automatic uprating system needs to be brought in to ensure MUP keeps pace with inflation and its effectiveness is not eroded.

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Original modelling from the University of Sheffield also found that a minimum unit price of 60p would save twice the number of lives and reduce hospital admissions by twice the level of 50p per unit.

Meanwhile, 70p per unit would have three times the effect, creating another argument for cranking up the unit price.

And despite major concerns expressed by the alcohol industry, Douglas said the Scottish Government should be considering introducing restrictions on marketing following the conclusion of a consultation on the matter earlier this month.

Douglas said: “We still have a huge problem with alcohol in Scotland and nobody ever said MUP would solve that problem, but what this [study] demonstrates is that whole population approaches that are recommended by the World Health Organisation do work.

“We need to keep working and have a broad approach to alcohol harm if we’re going to turn this huge tide of harm that we have around.

“That means going back to what the evidence tell us – the affordability of alcohol matters, the availability matters, but also how it’s marketed because that normalises alcohol as a product we consume regularly but also encourages us to drink more.

The National:

“The MUP policy comes to an end in April 2024 unless it is actively renewed so we need to ensure this is a policy that is put in place on a permanent basis.

"But there is also a risk the effectiveness of MUP may be eroded over time because of inflation, so it needs to be uprated.

“We also know from the original modelling that a higher price would deliver greater benefits.

“Now we know this policy works, and there’s no significant evidence of any unintended consequences, this is the time to calibrate it so we’re maximising the benefits.”

The Scottish Government had committed to uprating MUP more than two years ago but this never happened due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Ministers are now planning two pieces of legislation ahead of May 1 next year – one to review MUP overall and another on whether and how it should be uprated.

Douglas added she hoped not only that the Scottish Government would continue the policy but also that Westminster would consider following suit and introducing its own.

She said: “If England chose to implement a MUP, that would also be beneficial to Scotland because it would reduce the risk of people travelling to take advantage of lower prices.

“I would really hope the UK Government would be looking at the results from Scotland – that’s what they said they would do – and reach the conclusion MUP will deliver a benefit across the UK.”

It comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the MUP policy and its impact is amongst one of her "greatest achievements" in office.