In May 2018, Scotland became the first country in the world to implement minimum unit pricing. Alcohol cannot now be sold for less than 50 pence per unit, meaning that a 700ml bottle of vodka now costs at least £13.13 and a 3 litre bottle of strong white cider now costs at least £11.25. The World Health Organization has indicated that MUP is a policy ‘best buy’ to reduce alcohol-related harm such as hospitalisation, deaths, and harm to others. Minimum unit pricing targets the heaviest drinkers who buy most of the cheapest, strongest alcohol (Angus et al, 2016; Alcohol Focus Scotland, 2018).
Will MUP impact on a similar way on men and women, or might there be gender differences? On the one hand, we would expect population level policies to interact with structural inequalities and gendered expectations around drinking. Men are more likely than women to drink alcohol, to consume larger amounts of alcohol and to experience alcohol-related harm. Gendered double standards persist: women’s behaviour and appearance is judged more harshly than men’s if they have been drinking and female heavy drinkers continue to feel stigmatized which may be a barrier to accessing services (Rolfe et al, 2009). On the other hand, we know that the relationship between social and economic environment (measured by geographic location) and alcohol-related deaths is similar for men and women, suggesting that similar processes and factors are important in determining the risk of alcohol-related harm for both men and women in Scotland. (Emslie & Mitchell, 2009).
Part of the problem is that we have very little evidence about how population level policies such as alcohol pricing may affect men and women, as so many studies are ‘gender blind. Our recent work (Fitzgerald et al, 2016) found that gender relevant findings were reported in fewer than 25% of studies within systematic reviews of alcohol taxation or pricing, so we do not know whether the intended (or unintended) consequences of these population level policies were similar or different for women and men. There was some consistency in studies considering indirect impact, suggested that an increase in the price of alcohol may have reduced harms such as gender-based violence.
A robust programme of research is planned to monitor and evaluate minimum unit pricing in Scotland. This research should analyse results separately by gender to explore whether the effects of the policy are similar or different for men and women. There may be an increased demand for alcohol treatment services with the introduction of minimum unit pricing, and this needs to be monitored to ensure that services are appropriate for both men and women. From discussions with colleagues working in alcohol policy and practice we know that gender issues around alcohol are not routinely considered when developing or implementing policies. This needs to change.
Dr Carol Emslie is a Senior Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University and leads the Substance Use & Misuse research group (twitter: @SubMisuseGCU). You can find out more about Carol on her university profile, or via the SARN website. There is an event being held at Glasgow Caledonian University on Monday June 18th, titled ‘Women, Men, and Alcohol – Exploding the Myths’ – register here!