Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) on ice in Northern Ireland?

16 May 2019 - by Erin Delaney

With research demonstrating a clear link between alcohol consumption and no fewer than seven types of cancer, implementing minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol has been on the public health radar for a number of years.

The 2019 Global Drug Survey has revealed that drinkers in the UK report getting drunk an average of 51.1 times in a 12-month period, clinching the top spot in this 36 country-wide survey. The 36 country average stands at 33 times per year.

Calls for MUP legislation to be adopted have intensified recently, voiced by GPs, officials, charities, health campaign groups and MLAs.

Described in 2018 by Coroner Joe McCrisken as the “greatest healthcare problem facing Northern Ireland”, alcohol misuse is undoubtedly a public health issue.

Figures released by NISRA in January 2018 show that alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland stand at the highest on record, increasing by 30 per cent since 2007.

Mortality due to alcohol is also four times higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. 

A recent report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health states that MUP legislation would work to curb alcohol consumption and access among children and young people, therefore preventing consequent health issues later in life.

Dr George O'Neill, chair of Addiction NI, has said that dealing with such illnesses costs the health service around £250m a year.

Previously, plans were in place between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish government to harmonise pricing interventions and introduce MUP simultaneously. However, the planned consultation on the MUP proposal did not materialise in Northern Ireland and was swiftly followed by the collapse of the Executive in January 2017.

In October 2018, the Republic of Ireland’s Health Minister, Simon Harris, said that his government “wouldn’t wait forever” for Stormont to be revived in order to take action and, true to his word, in late 2018, he signed into law the Public Health (Alcohol) Act.

This comprehensive piece of legislation targets price, access, marketing, advertising and labelling of alcohol and leaves Northern Ireland behind on this issue. This legislation includes MUP and is the first law in Ireland that treats alcohol as a matter of public health.

Appearing to be firmly shelved, MUP is cited in phase 2 of the ‘New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs’as being “for an incoming Minister and Executive to agree a way forward on this issue.

Yet, movement on MUP is taking place elsewhere. Aside from the introduction of the Irish legislation, MUP has already been set in Scotland, further consultation is taking place in Wales and pre-development of a new alcohol strategy in England is now underway. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure to proceed.