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Wales to bring forward alcohol minimum unit pricing

Plans to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol have been approved by members of the National Assembly for Wales.

The Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill will become law once it has received Royal Assent. The Welsh government now intends to consult on its proposed MUP, which it hopes to introduce in summer 2019. Once introduced, it will be an offence for alcohol to be sold at a price below that calculated on the basis of the drink's alcoholic content.

The proposal is part of a wider strategy by the Welsh government to tackle hazardous and harmful drinking, which it estimates costs the NHS in Wales over £150 million annually. Scotland introduced the world's first MUP, at 50p per unit, last month.

Welsh health secretary Vaughan Gething said that approval of the legislation provided the government with "an opportunity for a step change".

"This legislation takes a sensible, targeted approach to a very real and evident problem in Wales today," he said. "Wales, like so many other western countries, has a problem with cheap, strong, readily-available alcohol. This legislation will make an important contribution to addressing this issue."

The Scottish 50p minimum unit price means that a bottle of 40% whisky cannot be sold for less than £14, while a bottle of 37.5% vodka cannot be sold for less than £13.13. A bottle of 12.5% wine must be priced at £4.69 or above, while a two litre bottle of 7.5% strong cider must now cost at least £7.50.

Scotland passed legislation giving Scottish ministers the power to introduce a MUP in May 2012, however its entry into force was delayed by a legal challenge brought by the Scotch Whisky Association and other European wine and spirits trade bodies. The policy was ultimately cleared by the UK Supreme Court in November 2017, on the grounds that it was a proportionate means of tackling alcohol-related harm.

The Welsh bill, like the Scottish legislation, incorporates a 'sunset' clause, which means that it will expire after six years unless renewed by a ministerial decision which receives the positive approval of National Assembly members. The Supreme Court, in its ruling on the Scottish legislation, said that this clause was a significant factor in its finding of proportionality.

England has not yet proposed the introduction of a MUP, although the government said in November 2017 that it would keep this "under review" depending on the impact of the Scottish policy.

Licensing law expert Christopher Rees-Gay of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that approval of the bill by the National Assembly "brings a minimum price for alcohol for retail sales a step closer in Wales".

"This is in contrast to the position in England, where the government's latest stance given in November 2017 in its response to the report from the House of Lords select committee on the 2033 Licensing Act where it stated that minimum unit pricing remains 'under review' and that 'the government will consider the evidence of its impact once it is available'," he said.

"In Scotland, similar legislation has a five-year sunset clause," said licencing law expert Frances Ennis of Pinsent Masons. "It will be very interesting to see whether MUP has the desired effect in Scotland and, more significantly, how the government plans to measure its success."

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