#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 3°C Thursday 20 January 2022
Advertisement

FactCheck: Will Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol lead to an increase in drug use?

Is there evidence that alcohol users turn to drugs as a result of the policy?

THIS WEEK SAW the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) on alcohol in Ireland, pushing up prices of cans, wine and spirits in off-licences, shops and supermarkets throughout the country.

The new law met with opposition after it was brought in, with some suggestions that it could increase drug use because alcohol users will potentially become priced out of drinking. 

We know that the MUP increases the floor price of alcohol, but do alcohol users switch to other substances when the cost goes up?

Let’s take a look. 

The Claim

A number of people have claimed that the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing will lead to higher levels of drug use in Ireland.

Speaking on Newstalk’s Lunchtime Live programme on the day the policy was introduced, NUI Galway’s Student Union President Róisín Nic Lochlainn was among those to say this. She told the station:

All it is going to do is push people further into poverty and increase reliance on other unsafe substances.

The Evidence

Minimum Unit Pricing was introduced in Ireland on 4 January under provisions set out in Section 11 of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018.

Since then, the minimum price of a drink is based on ten cents for every gram of alcohol it contains – or €1 per unit (equivalent to 10g of pure alcohol).

That means a 500ml can containing 4.5% lager can’t be sold for less than €1.78.  

Similarly, a 70cl bottle of whiskey or gin can’t be sold for less than €22.09, a 70cl bottle of vodka can’t be sold for less than €20.71, a 750ml bottle of wine can’t be sold for less than €7.40 and a pint of lager can’t be sold for less than €1.93.

Ireland followed the lead of other countries which have introduced similar policies in recent years.

In 2018, Scotland became the first country in the world to bring in Minimum Unit Pricing.

For the past few years, drinks in Scotland must cost at least 50p (€0.60) per unit of alcohol – though a unit in the UK is calculated as being equivalent to 8g of pure alcohol, 2g less than in Ireland.

This means the minimum cost of a 12.5 per cent 750ml bottle of wine in Scotland is £4.69 (€5.62), compared to €7.40 here.

Wales followed Scotland and introduced MUP in 2020. The minimum price per unit of alcohol has been the same as in Scotland since.

Outside of Europe, a legal minimum price for alcohol is also in place in Russia and parts of Australia and Canada.

UK studies

Because it was introduced four years ago, a number of studies have been done on the effectiveness of MUP in Scotland and its outcomes – including around the impact of the policy on rates of drug use.

A 2021 study published in the journal Public Health Research collected data from alcohol-related attendances to emergency departments and sexual health clinics (SHCs), as well as focus groups made up of heavy drinkers and young people.

From data collated within the community, researchers found that there was “no evidence of substitution from alcohol consumption to other drugs” after the introduction of MUP.

Likewise, researchers said there was “no evidence of an unintended effect of MUP on illicit drug use” among those who attended SHCs.

Also last year, an interim report conducted by the University of Sheffield on behalf of Public Health Scotland surveyed people who were alcohol dependent and accessing treatment services.

Researchers who carried out the report said they “did not find any evidence of increased uptake of illicit drugs in Scotland following the introduction of MUP”.

The report also stated that evidence and other studies (up to that point) had suggested that concerns about alcohol users moving to other substances as a substitute had “not been realised” in the 18 months since MUP was introduced.

And the previous year, a Public Health Scotland study also evaluated the impact of of MUP on parental substance misuse.

The study involved focus groups with practitioners working with families, children and young people affected by parent/carer harmful alcohol use.

Researchers found that when it came raising the price of alcohol, participants did see an increase in drug use in family and friends – though they were unable to say whether this was due to MUP or general drug trends.

The study said:

Participants could not identify a clear link between MUP and the use of other drugs, but there were some concerns expressed that MUP might exacerbate existing problems for individuals within the context of poverty, welfare changes and what people can afford to buy, and their desire to use substances to cope with/escape from their lives

However, participants in one focus group also stated that “for the people they work with, the substance (alcohol and/or drugs) of choice will change depending on relative price”.

In its conclusions, the study said that participants working in adult alcohol services were not aware of any parents/carers who only used alcohol who substituted alcohol with drugs since the introduction of MUP.

But it noted that other participants suggested that an increase in alcohol prices “had the potential” to impact on patterns of drug use by some individuals who were already using drugs – though it did not say that this was happening.

Those participants were also noted as being “cautious about ascribing any changes specifically to MUP”, though the study said they described how some service users may look to substances other than alcohol to self-medicate depending on the relative price.

Findings from these three studies suggest that there is no evidence that the introduction of MUP in Scotland pushed alcohol users to other substances, despite concerns that this could happen.

A limited study on the impact of MUP in Wales – including on drug use – was also published by the government there last year

Online survey questionnaires were completed by 179 drinkers, while a further 41 drinkers were interviewed in person.

The drinkers said that substance switching was “an unlikely consequence” of introducing MUP and that switching to illegal drugs was considered only a possibility for those with histories of using these substances.

What do the experts say?

For further insight, we asked a number of experts whether there was any link between an increase in drug use and the introduction of MUP.

Scottish Drug Forum Co-Founder David Liddell, who was quoted in the Times Ireland this week as saying there was “some evidence” of people switching from drink to drugs after MUP was introduced, clarified to The Journal that his claim came from anecdotal feedback from services. 

“It is a complicated area because there is also a large population of polysubstance users, who use a number of substances in combination including alcohol,” he said.

“This group will often vary the nature of their substance use according to availability and price.”  

According to Liddell, in a group of alcohol users there will inevitably be a proportion who may switch to other substances or use other drugs to supplement their alcohol use. But he clarified that he did not suggest this was a large group.

Meanwhile, University of Sheffield Senior Research Fellow Colin Angus said that, when it comes to peer-reviewed research, “there is very little evidence on any association between MUP and illicit drug use”. 

“This is a concern that is often brought up, but there is very little evidence to support it,” he said.

Angus also explained how broader trends show that young people are drinking and taking illicit substances less than those older than them. 

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

“The idea that an increase in the price of alcohol is going to lead to a big rise in young people smoking cannabis or getting into other illicit drugs just doesn’t fit with the wider picture,” he said. 

But this doesn’t mean that we can definitively rule out that MUP in Ireland won’t increase drug use, despite a lack of evidence so far.

“Illicit drug use is very context-specific and we shouldn’t assume that just because there’s little evidence that it happened in Scotland, means that it definitely won’t happen in Ireland,” Angus added.

The Journal also contacted Deakin University Professor of Addiction Studies Dr Peter Miller, who has evaluated the effects of minimum drink pricing in Australia’s Northern Territory after it was introduced there in 2018.

He stressed the key differences between the state and Ireland especially, given the Northern Territory policy targeted “cheap, nasty cask wine” as opposed to all types of alcohol.

However, he said there was nothing to suggest that alcohol users switching to drug use when speaking to treatment agencies as a result of the cost difference.

“We saw no evidence of that. There was an increase of meth [use] not related to MUP, but that was a reflection of drug trends – not evidence of alcohol users switching to something else,” Miller said. 

Miller also cited previous research he conducted in 2009, which looked at the consequences of drink pricing in nightclubs in a small pilot study.

From interviews conducted as part of that study, he found that a price difference would “require a huge increase… for people who don’t already use drugs to shift to drugs.”

“That is not an increase you would see with MUP unless it was massive one with every single glass costing $25 (€15.80),” he said. 

However, Miller notes this study examined young people and behaviours such as pre-drinking, as opposed to a national study about a health policy with a large sample.

Request for comment

As part of this article, The Journal reached out to NUI Galway SU President Róisín Nic Lochlainn about the claim that MUP would lead to an increase in drug use.

However, no response was received by the time of publication.

Verdict

It was claimed this week that the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing in Ireland would lead to an increased reliance among drinkers on “other unsafe substances”.

However, there is no evidence to support this claim.

Available research does not point to a link between Minimum Unit Pricing and an increase in drug use, while three experts in the field who spoke to The Journal also played down the claim.

This does not necessarily mean that this will not happen in Ireland following the introduction of the policy here. As one expert told us, just because it didn’t happen in other countries doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in Ireland. But there is currently no evidence to suggest that it definitely will. 

We therefore rate the claim: UNPROVEN.

As per our verdict guide, this means: the evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

About the author:

Read next:

COMMENTS