On 21st October, following a lengthy process, the Scottish courts rejected the challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association, which may open the way for the introduction of minimum unit pricing. It has been suggested that this will have a greater effect on those with lower incomes, who are more likely to drink cheap alcohol, than on those with higher incomes.
We can begin to assess this position using data from the Scottish Health Survey, a large annual survey covering a range of health-related issues, including alcohol consumption. Indeed, at first glance, some of this evidence may challenge common preconceptions, with it being wealthier Scots who are more likely to consume above the recommended maximum level of 14 units a week than their less well-off counterparts.
Of course, the story is more complex than this. Published figures from the Scottish Health Survey for 2015 show that male drinkers in low income households consumed an average of 23 units a week, compared with 17 units for men in the highest income households. Indeed, when we look only at those drinking above the maximum recommended levels, we see that men with the lowest incomes drank around 55 units a week, while those on the highest incomes drank about 28 units a week. In other words, we see a smaller proportion of men with low incomes than high incomes drinking above recommended levels, but those who are above the levels drink considerably more. While women generally consumed less alcohol than men, the same patterns were evident, with more women in the highest income group exceeding the guidelines, but very high consumption being more evident in the low income group.
Additional information from the Scottish Health Survey provided by ScotCen and the Scottish Government tells us a lot more about the differences in alcohol consumption across the income groups. In particular, it helps provide initial evidence on whether drinkers in the lowest income groups are drinking the types of drink most likely to be affected by minimum unit pricing, such as strong beer or cider, spirits and fortified wine.
Male drinkers on low incomes did consume more of these type of drinks than those on higher incomes. They were more likely to drink strong beer or cider (an average of 2.2 units per week for those on low incomes and 0.3 units for those on high incomes), fortified wine, such as sherry or Buckfast (0.5 units, compared with 0.1 units), and more spirits (4.5 units and 3.2 units). Female drinkers in low income households similarly drank more strong beer or cider and more spirits than wealthier women, but at lower levels than men. However, despite this it is worth noting that for all groups, whether highest or lowest income, male or female, at least half the units consumed are from normal strength beer or cider or from wine.
These figures demonstrate a clear association between heavy drinking and low income, but also show that it is an issue not entirely confined to those on low incomes.
A version of this blog first appeared in The Scotsman