Whisky galore as Scotland stalls efforts to outlaw cheap alcohol
GLASGOW LETTER:Scotland’s government has put alcohol price controls on hold amid industry opposition
ON A dark Monday night in George’s Square, outside Glasgow city council’s palatial headquarters, the streets are quiet, even eerily empty. But it is not always so in a city that has the worst alcohol record in Scotland – death rates from cirrhosis began to spiral 30 years ago, on the back of unemployment and cheap drink.
For several years, the Scottish National Party majority government in the Holyrood parliament has been determined to impose a floor on prices, to block supermarket sales that have done much to fuel the trend.
Earlier this month, however, the government put on hold plans to order a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, pending the conclusion of legal actions.
The immediate opposition comes at home from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which is enjoying boom times as its bottles find favour with Chinese drinkers.
The industry argued this week that alcohol pricing is a matter for Westminster, that Holyrood’s action breaches European Union laws and that it is in breach of the Acts of Union of 1706 and 1707.
If implemented, the change – due initially to have come into force in April next year – would increase the price of popular blended whisky and cost the industry £500 million (€620 million) a year.
The EU has not been keen either, warning of a legal battle ahead at the European Court of Justice and believing the measure would interfere illegally with free-market trade rules.
In reply, Holyrood ministers have insisted they have the required power, saying exemptions are allowed under EU rules to tackle serious public health problems.
Minimum pricing is disliked not just in Brussels: some of the EU’s biggest wine-exporting countries – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria – are flexing legal muscles.
If enacted, the law would mean four cans of medium-strength lager would cost at least £3.52, while the cheapest bottle of wine would have to be sold for no less than £4.69.
Before she moved on from being Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon pointed to an academic study that argued that the measure would cut alcohol consumption by 5 per cent.
Rejecting charges that it would discriminate against those who enjoy the occasional tipple, Sturgeon said the evidence is that it would cut the consumption most of those who drink too much.
Unusually, perhaps, given the tempers raised by the independence referendum, the Scottish government is at one on the issue with the Conservative- Liberal Democrats coalition.