Whisky galore as Scotland stalls efforts to outlaw cheap alcohol

Fri, Oct 26, 2012, 01:00

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.

South of the border, prime minister David Cameron wants to impose a 40p minimum price per unit, while one of his ministers this week insisted such a move would not breach EU regulations.

Supporters of higher prices point to Saskatchewan in Canada, which imposed minimum pricing two years ago and has seen consumption of higher-strength beers fall by one-fifth.

Whereas British Columbia just made every drink more expensive, the Saskatchewan authorities used the model Scotland wants to follow: linking prices to alcohol content.

“Price increases that target the cheapest, strongest alcohol products are likely to have significant public health benefits,” said the report’s lead author, Tim Stockwell.

Scottish campaigners, such as Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive Evelyn Gillan, said the Saskatchewan experience vindicates the Holyrood efforts.

Peter Rice, chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, said Saskatchewan showed minimum pricing hits supermarket sales, not those in pubs and restaurants.

The danger of alcohol is not only to the liver. In July, University of Glasgow researchers found communities in the city with six outlets selling alcohol suffer crime rates twice those of districts with only three.

Last year, the National Health Service said that one-fifth of deaths, injuries and rescues from domestic fires in the city were drink-related. Nearly half involved unattended chip pans, while one in 10 involved someone falling asleep or unconscious because of overconsumption.

Seven years ago, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde found that nearly 14,000 people in the city were problem drinkers, one-fifth of them women. Nearly 10,000 children had one alcoholic parent, though often they do not live with them, but nearly 4,000 do – “more than 3 per cent of all children” in the city.

Scotland had the highest rates of death from cirrhosis in western Europe, and in greater Glasgow and Clyde cirrhosis deaths were more than twice the already bad Scottish average, it reported.

Money talks, however. The SWA is a powerful lobby, accounting for four-fifths of all of Scotland’s food and drink exports.

The industry is not just worried about Scotland’s actions. Like the Irish smoking ban of 2004, it frets that others would follow Scotland’s lead in time.

Defending its legal challenge, SWA chief executive Gavin Hewitt said 30 per cent of drinkers consume 80 per cent of all alcohol sold. “We agree that Scotland must address the harmful use of alcohol, but policy needs to be targeted on the problem,” he said, saying that the association had been left with no choice but to go to court.

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