The Scottish Government has estimated that the misuse of alcohol costs the country £2.25bn per year. And a recent York University study suggests the figure may be even higher. Alcohol is thought to be behind 40% of violent crimes. Yes, Scotland is a nation of drinkers.
The statistics show that there is a problem. But politicians can’t agree on how best to tackle it.
We’ve seen curbs on advertising and the curbing of happy hours. Increased education about the dangers of alcoholism had been introduced. And the controversial proposal that the SNP has put in front of Parliament involves setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has now announced that the figure they will press for will be 45p per unit. This would mean that a two-litre bottle of Tesco’s own brand cider would rise from £1.32 to £3.80, while Asda’s whisky would go up from £9.20 to £12.60 a bottle.
There would be no change in the cost of brands like Bell’s, Whyte & Mackay or Johnnie Walker, which currently retail above £14.
Leading health professionals believe that increasing the price of cheap high strength drinks will have the desired result of decreasing drinking. But many in the drinks industry, as well as all opposition parties oppose the move.
Labour says that the move would not increase the price of drinks such as Buckfast that have a reputation for being linked to trouble, while it would hit responsible drinkers. The Lib Dems believe that any measure introduced should be UK wide to avoid having different pricing across the border. And the Tories argue that it would simply benefit supermarkets as they would make additional profits from higher prices.
It has also been suggested that a minimum price might actually be illegal under international trade agreements. The government can use a public health get out, but some fear that this may lead to increased taxes being imposed on whisky abroad, threatening the crucial export market.
So will plans for minimum pricing have an impact on Scotland’s alcohol problems?
There is evidence that alcohol consumption falls during recessions, and this is backed up by a new report from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) which suggests that alcohol consumption fell by 6% during 2009 – the fourth fall in the last five years. We now drink less than the EU average.
The BBPA attributes this fall to the recession and to some success for messages encouraging responsible drinking.
So if alcohol consumption falls when money is tight, is this an argument in favour of minimum pricing? The BBPA doesn’t think so, arguing that a rise in prices will hit everyone, and that targeted measures are required instead, aimed specifically at those abusing alcohol.
Nicola Sturgeon has stated that there would be 50 fewer deaths in the first year after the policy was implemented, a £5.5m reduction in health care costs and 1,200 fewer hospital admissions from alcohol-related conditions.
My view is that minimum pricing will have no effect on hardened drinkers. Heroin is much more expensive and drug users manage to find the money for their fix, often by illegal methods. The addict will always find a way.
The policy may have an effect on some young people. If the cost of a night’s drinking increases, they may be forced to reduce consumption. And so it can be argued that minimum prices could dissuade some of tomorrow’s problem drinkers from reaching the stage of dependency.
The Scots’ attitude to alcohol is ingrained in society. Pubs are our meeting place of choice and heavy drinking is largely seen as something to be proud of. We use alcohol for stress relief and as a reward to ourselves at the end of a working week, or indeed day. And we organise our social lives around drink, at home or in pubs and clubs.
Unless we tackle the cultural significance of drink to our lives, other measures will simply be tinkering at the margins without addressing the core issue. I have my doubts about whether minimum pricing is the right way to go, although I am coming to the conclusion that it might just be worth a try. But I would prefer to see a uniform approach cross the UK rather than Scotland going it alone.
When the SNP’s bill was debated in Parliament back in June, MSPs voted by 54 to 49 to remove minimum pricing. A second vote is likely to be equally close.