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Two new publications examine how newspapers in the UK and Scotland represented the debate over minimum unit pricing for alcohol, an economic intervention that involves raising the price of the cheapest alcohol to reduce alcohol consumption and the social and health harms it produces.

Alcohol: media coverage of alcohol minimum unit pricing

posted on: Dec 4, 2013

Two new publications examine how newspapers in the UK and Scotland represented the debate over minimum unit pricing for alcohol, an economic intervention that involves raising the price of the cheapest alcohol to reduce alcohol consumption and the social and health harms it produces.

We found that the alcohol problem is primarily portrayed in newspaper coverage as a growing issue affecting communities and wider society, responsible for domestic abuse, violence, anti-social behaviour and economic burdens. Contributors who supported the minimum unit pricing intervention tended to focus on cheap alcohol and marketing as drivers of the problem, while critics focused on youth binge drinkers and dependent drinkers. Those who supported the intervention argued that it is likely to succeed due to its targeted design, while critics gave a wide variety of arguments against its use, including a perceived absence of evidence to support its effectiveness and its capacity to do harm to a responsible majority of people.

To study the content of newspaper articles, we used a technique called content analysis. Newspaper content is studied because the mass media have a great influence on what issues the public are aware of, and, to an extent, what their opinions and understandings of those issues are likely to be. Therefore, understanding mass media representations of an issue can help us understand what public opinion might be about possible solutions to that issue.

In the two papers we suggest lessons derived from our analyses that public health advocates may find useful. In the first, we suggest that the presentation of the alcohol problem as a community- and population-level problem may foster support for solutions that aim to tackle the problem at a structural, population level, such as minimum unit pricing. However, media coverage focusing on youth binge drinking may undermine this effect.

In the second paper, we again suggest that public health advocates may benefit from shifting media focus away from binge drinkers and heavy drinkers, towards population-level overconsumption. We also suggest that minimum unit pricing could be presented as part of a wider package of policies, instead of a single ‘silver bullet’ solution, and we suggest that emphasising the success of recent public health policies, such as smoke-free legislation, may remind public audiences of the positive gains that can be made through legislative public health interventions.

Minimum unit pricing was passed into legislation in the Scottish Parliament in 2012, and is currently facing legal challenges in the European Union before it can be introduced. The research was carried out by researchers in the Understandings and Uses of Public Health Research and Evaluating the Health Effects of Social Interventions programmes.

First paper:

Wood K, Patterson C, Katikireddi SV, ´╗┐Hilton S´╗┐. Harms to ‘others’ from alcohol consumption in the minimum unit pricing policy debate: a qualitative content analysis of UK newspapers (2005-2012). Addiction [in press]
Link

Second paper:

Hilton S, Wood K, Patterson C, Katikireddi SV. Implications for alcohol minimum unit pricing advocacy: what can we learn for public health from UK newsprint coverage of key claim-makers in the policy debate? Social Science & Medicine [in press]
Link