Minimum unit pricing (MUP) has reduced the number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland by 13.4% according to a new report - but there is limited evidence that it has prevented low-income alcoholics from drinking.
An independent evaluation of the policy by Public Health Scotland (PHS) found that that the number of hospital admissions due to direct alcohol consumption was down by 4.1%,
The report estimates there had been an estimated 400 fewer hospital admissions and 150 fewer deaths on average each year.
Since 2018, a 50p minimum charge has been placed on each unit of alcohol available for purchase in Scotland.
Public Health Scotland (PHS) says the policy has had a "positive impact" in the five years since it was introduced, with a 3% reduction in alcohol consumption at population level, according to retail sales.
However, the report said there had been negative consequences for those with complex alcohol dependencies who are on lower income - with evidence that some had prioritised buying alcohol over food.
Clare Beeston, lead for the evaluation of the policy at PHS, said: "We have seen reductions in deaths and hospital admissions directly caused by sustained, high levels of alcohol consumption, and this is further evidence that those drinking at harmful and hazardous levels have reduced their consumption.
"MUP alone is not enough to address the specific and complex needs of those with alcohol dependence who will often prioritise alcohol over other needs, and it is important to continue to provide services and any wider support that addresses the root cause of their dependence.
"Those living in the most socioeconomic deprived areas in Scotland experience alcohol-specific death rates at least five times greater than those living in the least deprived areas. Alcohol-related disorders are a leading contributor to health inequalities in Scotland.
"Overall, the evidence shows that MUP has had a positive impact on improving health outcomes, including alcohol-related health inequalities, and can play a part in addressing the preventable harm that affect far too many people, families and communities."
According to the most recent statistics available, 1,245 people died from conditions caused by alcohol in 2021 - the highest since 2008.
The Scottish Parliament will use the findings to determine whether or not it will continue with minimum unit pricing, with a vote expected before May 2024.
Campaigners from Alcohol Focus Scotland have called for the price to be increased to save more lives.
However, Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the evaluation was a "whitewash", which he says "ignores most of the evidence from the Government's own evaluation".
Mr Snowdon added: "Minimum pricing was promoted to politicians based on speculative modelling so it is apt that a speculative model is being used to save it from the sunset clause - but minimum pricing has only ever worked in the imaginations of a handful of academics.
"It has cost Scottish consumers hundreds of millions of pounds and deserves to be ditched."
Drugs and alcohol policy minister Elena Whitham said: "We're determined to do all we can to reduce alcohol-related harm and, as this research demonstrates, our world-leading policy is saving lives, reducing alcohol harms and many hospital admissions.
"Just one life lost to alcohol-related harm is one too many and my sympathy goes to all those who have lost a loved one.
"MUP has also contributed to reducing health inequalities. The study found the largest reductions in deaths and hospital admissions wholly attributable to alcohol consumption were seen in men and those living in the 40% most deprived areas.
"We know that additional support is needed for some groups, including those dealing with alcohol dependence and issues such as homelessness. That's why, alongside MUP, last year, £106.8 million was made available to Alcohol and Drugs Partnerships to support local and national initiatives.
"We will now carefully consider this research as part of ongoing work on reviewing MUP."
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