Alcohol Pricing Debate Causes Stir

Posted on December 2, 2011

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By Martin Owens

Scotland’s Health Minister and a leading alcohol awareness charity have teamed up to tackle claims by opposition MSPs and trade associations that the bill to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol in Scotland will not target the key areas and is “misguided”.  

Amid claims from the Scottish Whiskey Association (SWA) that the SNP’s bill proposing minimum pricing per unit of alcohol is “misguided” and most likely illegal, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Nicola Sturgeon, has resiliently defended the plan.

She said: “Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is one of the most pressing public health challenges facing us as a nation and we need to take action to tackle it. Here we have a second opportunity to add the missing piece in the legislative jigsaw – introducing minimum pricing.”

However, Gavin Hewitt, Chief Executive of the SWA, maintains that the minimum unit pricing bill is not the way forward. “The Scottish Government’s fixation with minimum pricing as the solution to alcohol-related harm is misguided. The impact of recent legislation has not yet been fully felt and many other measures to address alcohol misuse remain untested.”

Hewitt’s claims have received backing from opposition MSPs, namely Labour’s Dr Richard Simpson, a former GP and alcohol abuse psychiatrist. “The minimum unit pricing bill is untested and untried. The closest it has come to being tested is the ‘Social Responsibility Pricing’ scheme in Canada, but even here consumption has risen.”

Dr Simpson also stated that the bill is ill-advised in regards to dealing with the country’s increasing young binge drinkers: “The Sheffield report, which is what the whole bill is based on, states that they don’t know whether it will have any effect on binge drinking. It has least effect in the 16-24 age groups, with a predicted reduction in consumption of only 0.6%.”

While the SNP’s proposed bill has received widespread criticism, it has also received the backing from alcohol awareness charities.

Alcohol Focus Scotland supports the bill, saying: “Scotland has a distinct problem with alcohol; increased consumption is driving increased alcohol harm. This is exacerbated by plummeting prices and aggressive promotion. A minimum price for a unit of alcohol can help reduce alcohol consumption and harm as part of a wider package of measures, including education and diversion.”

The charity claims that if the bill was passed we would see changes in Scotland’s health and economy from year 1. In the first year, according to Alcohol Focus Scotland, we would see: “50 fewer alcohol related deaths, 1,200 fewer hospital admissions, £52m of savings from harm reduction (health, employment, crime), and 22,900 fewer days from work absence.” Over 10 years we would see “225 fewer deaths per year, 4,200 fewer admissions per year and savings of £721m”.

 Jack Law, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, in its guide to minimum pricing, said: “The introduction of minimum pricing has the potential to show benefits within a very short time – hazardous drinkers, who are on the verge of a serious health problem or even death, can be pulled back from becoming another statistic, if their drinking is reduced.”

 The Scotch Whiskey Association, nevertheless, maintains that the bill would be ineffective. A spokesperson said: “The Scotch Whisky industry agrees that Scotland’s drinking culture has to change. We are working with the Scottish Government to deliver that. Minimum pricing is the wrong policy option. It will not achieve the objective of a more healthy, positive and responsible attitude to alcohol.”

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