AN alcohol charity boss took a Tory MSP to task on the benefits of minimum unit pricing after he tried to argue with her about statistics.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane claimed estimates on the number of lives saved by minimum unit pricing are under “intense scrutiny” and sought answers from a panel of alcohol charity witnesses on how it had affected dependent drinkers.

Throughout his questioning, Gulhane repeatedly interrupted Justina Murray, chief executive of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol & Drugs, claiming statistics produced to date were not significant.

Murray hit back at him saying families are “frustrated that this is still being debated so many years down the line”.

She said the public health community is “united” in believing the evidence around the benefits of MUP, saying it had reduced consumption, hospital admissions and deaths.

READ MORE: Minimum unit pricing saving 'significantly more lives than expected'

When Gulhane said the evidence around hospital admissions was not “statistically significant”, Murray responded: “I’m here as a charity CEO, I’m not going to start arguing with you over statistical significance. I think you should be focussing on the fact that MUP has saved lives.”

Nervously smiling, she then said: “I think you’re possibly the only person in the room, I’m not sure, who doesn’t believe the evidence.”

She added: “You know we’ve lost over 11,000 people specifically to alcohol over the past decade. Families don’t really understand why this is still being debated. They want to see action and they want to see action on other issues as well, marketing, availability and treatment.”

Since it was introduced in Scotland in 2018, minimum unit pricing has been linked to an estimated 3% reduction in alcohol consumption, a 4.1% reduction in hospital admissions and a 13.4% reduction in deaths directly caused by alcohol.

Research published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet last year suggested 156 deaths per year on average in Scotland may have been prevented due to the policy, which is way beyond what was estimated.

The University of Sheffield last September said the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation had eroded the effectiveness of minimum unit pricing.

Holyrood’s health committee gathered this morning to hear from a selection of charity and industry representatives ahead of the Scottish Government deciding whether to uprate minimum unit pricing from 50p per unit.

READ MORE: Scottish Government plans to uprate alcohol minimum unit price to 65p

Gulhane went on to say he wanted to make it “abundantly clear” he does believe the evidence but added that dependent drinkers appeared to be spending more money on alcohol consumption as a result of minimum unit pricing.

Alison Douglas, of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said there are about 50,000 dependent drinkers in Scotland.

Minimum unit pricing was designed to reduce consumption around the roughly one million Scots who drink above the minimum guidelines, she said, rather than the smaller group of dependent drinkers.

The National:

Douglas said: “If people are waking up in the morning and they are psychologically and physiologically dependent on alcohol, the first thing that comes to their mind is not, ‘how much am I paying for my alcohol?’

“It is, ‘I need alcohol now to get me through this morning'”.

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Conservative MSP Tess White (above) also clashed with another charity chief when she asked about alcohol deaths among females, saying these have risen in recent years despite male deaths remaining level.

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (Shaap), said the 50p level has become less effective in the five years since MUP started.

One reason could be women drinking wine more frequently than men, he suggested, as wine is not affected by minimum unit pricing.

He said the “clear answer” to increase effectiveness among women is to increase minimum unit pricing, but White said “I dispute that”.

In a second panel, a number of groups representing the off-licence trade spoke to the Health Committee.

The SNP’s Clare Haughey, asked to what extent they contested data from Public Health Scotland around deaths and hospital admissions.

Dr Pete Cheema, of the Scottish Grocers Federation, said he believed data had been “skewed” by the pandemic and changes in consumer behaviour.

Haughey pressed him for evidence on this, saying: “So, essentially, the Scottish Grocers Federation doesn’t accept Public Health Scotland’s evaluation of minimum unit pricing on the basis of anecdote?”

Dr Cheema said: “That’s right”.

He went on to say a longer period of time is needed to collect the data.