Plans to put a minimum price on alcohol could lead to an initial spike in hospital admissions among the heaviest drinkers, researchers claim.
The Scottish Government’s minimum unit pricing (MUP) proposals set a floor price per unit that would hit cheap ciders and spirits, which can be sold in supermarkets for just 18p per unit.
Experts from Queen Margaret University (QMU) have warned it could have “implications for health services, such as increased emergency hospital admissions and demands on detox services” as problem drinkers struggle with symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Ministers pledged to consider the concerns around the implementation of minimum unit pricing, which is currently on hold due to a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association.
In the first study of its kind, the team spoke to people drinking nearly ten times the recommended weekly alcohol limit and likely to be “disproportionately affected” by rising prices.
QMU research fellow Fiona O’May said: “It is clear that it is going to seriously impact on people who are currently paying 18p or 20p per unit.
“These heavy drinkers can’t just stop drinking abruptly without health consequences.
“It is a big public health intervention and hopefully in the long term it will make a positive difference. But in the short term there may be these unintended consequences.”
Introducing the policy in winter could put further strain on hospitals, as problem drinkers are vulnerable to seasonal issues such as flu and lung conditions, the study found.
Those interviewed for the QMU study said they would simply switch to stronger drinks to get more for their money, while others said they would steal or cut back on food so they could keep up their drinking.
Some said they would try to stop drinking but did not know how.
Anti-alcohol campaigners welcomed the findings and called for ministers to rethink cuts to direct funding for alcohol treatment services.
Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “Treatment services provide crucial support to people who are struggling with alcohol problems. It is really concerning that alcohol and drug services across Scotland are facing a 22 per cent funding cut in direct funding from Scottish Government, and we know health boards are unable to make up the shortfall.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This research, once again, highlights the devastating effects of alcohol addiction in Scotland. We will consider its findings carefully when we are in a position to move forward with implementation.”