Scots in a hearts and minds battle on minimum pricing

Written by Tom Freeman on 15 September 2016 in Opinion

While some might say Scotland makes the best whisky in the world, it also boasts some of the worst rates of alcohol-related harm in western Europe, writes Tom Freeman.

Alcohol | Photo credit: Holyrood Magazine

It is a myth that Scotland's high alcohol-related harm figures are down to a long-standing historical culture of drinking. In fact, it was a surge in cheap alcohol in the late 1990s which saw spikes in the rates of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

In June 2012, therefore, the Scottish Parliament passed the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act which would introduce a policy of controlling prices, with a minimum price per unit of £0.50 (€0.60). 

However, four years later, Scotland is still waiting to enact the Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) policy. Why? Because the Scotch Whisky Association, alongside other manufacturers' trade bodies, has fought the legislation in the courts.


It was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) because there were "several complex issues" involving EU laws on free trade, and in December 2015 the ECJ ruled that MUP may indeed contravene EU trade laws, unless it can be proved than price controls can actually make a direct impact on public health. 

The European judges said it was "ultimately for the national court to determine whether measures other than that provided for by the Scottish legislation, such as increased taxation on alcoholic drinks, are capable of protecting human life and health as effectively as the current legislation, while being less restrictive of trade in those products within the EU." 

The case returns to Edinburgh's Court of Session this October, with a further appeal to the UK Supreme Court expected at a later date.

However, in the meantime, some other measures introduced by the Scottish government such as early identification and advice, restrictions on bulk buying discounts and tighter age control checks have kept the rate of alcohol harm stable. 

But Scottish alcohol consumption continues to rise, with recent Health figures highlighting that Scottish sales were 20 per cent higher than sales in England and Wales. In starker terms, last year sales increased to the equivalent of 41 bottles of vodka per adult Scot.

Peter Rice, who chairs Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), a group of clinicians who helped form Scotland's MUP case, says the evidence is already there.

The Scotch Whisky Association, he said, has mirrored the tactic of big tobacco in fighting what is referred to as "regulatory freeze". 

"It's interesting that the opposition to MUP comes from the international scale producers and the trade associations which they dominate. Smaller firms, such as local brewers and independent stores and pubs often support MUP and I think part of the reason is that they are closer to their communities and the harm which alcohol can cause," he said. 

Last year SHAAP joined over 20 NGOs from across Europe in resigning from the European Commission funded EU Alcohol and Health Forum over a lack of a Europe-wide strategy. Meanwhile, the Scottish government remain committed to seeing MUP enacted, while Europe watches on.


About the author

Tom Freeman is a journalist with Holyrood, the Parliament Magazine's sister current affairs publication in Scotland


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