Scotland looks set to lead the way in introducing legislation on alcohol price With the announcement that minimum pricing legislation is to be reintroduced to the Scottish Parliament, Scotland is back where it belongs at the forefront of public health policy, argues Evelyn Gillan, chief executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland.
Having led the way with its minimum pricing proposals, Scotland faced being overtaken by both Northern Ireland and Wales, who began seriously considering the idea as Scotland’s own efforts, hindered by an unyielding opposition, faltered in the last parliamentary session.
“Scotland has a reputation as a public health leader,” she states.
“We were the first in the UK to ban smoking in public places so we have a great historic tradition of being concerned about public health in Scotland. Northern Ireland are out for consultation at the moment about whether or not they intend to introduce minimum pricing and Welsh Assembly ministers have also indicated their desire to see minimum pricing introduced; so it is very much to be welcomed that we are now back leading the way because that is the reputation that we have.” In this Parliament, backed by a majority SNP Government, minimum pricing is assured a happier ending. However, Gillan still hopes it can attract wider support.
“I think the best possible way forward for this legislation is for our Parliament to have a consensus across the parties that they are prepared to give this measure a try. The reality is everything we’ve been doing up until now has not been working. So the absolute best outcome from our point of view would be that this proposal has cross-party support.” The early indications are that some opposition members have had a change of heart, with new Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP pledging his party’s support and Scottish Conservative leadership contender Jackson Carlaw calling on his party to do likewise. This broad base of support will be needed if the Parliament is to face down the opposition that will no doubt come from an alcohol industry that has described minimum pricing as one of the “greatest threats we have on a global basis”.
Gillan gives their objection short shrift, however, and advises the Government to do likewise.
“This policy is designed to reduce overall consumption in the population in Scotland in order to save lives. The alcohol industry from their point of view, which is perfectly acceptable, their first priority is to their shareholders.
“Their priority is to maintain profit levels and to continue to sell a product. They don’t want to see overall consumption coming down; it would be bad for business as far as they can see.
So we have to be absolutely clear here that it is not appropriate for a direct commercial vested interest to be influencing public health policy.” The “challenges, scare tactics, and misinformation” deployed by some in the alcohol industry in response to efforts to curb alcohol misuse are reminiscent of those deployed by the tobacco industry against tobacco control policies, she says. While several public health organisations openly walked away from the UK Government’s alcohol responsibility deal earlier this year as they felt the alcohol industry was being allowed too great an influence over the policy, Gillan is hopeful that the Scottish Government will prove more willing to stand its ground.
“The alcohol industry doesn’t want regulation.
They want to be allowed unfettered access to the market. That is their raison d’etre. What a government has to do is say, ‘Actually, we as a government have to regulate because this is not an ordinary commodity. It is a drug that causes significant harm and our job has to be to regulate that in order to minimise the harm.’” That harm is considerable and not going away. General Registrar for Scotland figures published last month found that alcohol-related deaths increased by 3 per cent in 2010 from the previous year. While figures published by NHS Health Scotland showed that adults in Scotland are consuming 23 per cent more alcohol than those in England and Wales – the biggest difference recorded during the 17 years measured since 1994. As Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon pointed out recently, that is equivalent to every adult in Scotland buying 2.2 more litres of pure alcohol a year than those in England at an annual cost of £3.56bn, or £900 for every adult.
Some, Scottish Conservative health spokesperson and leadership contender Murdo Fraser MSP included, have claimed these figures erode the SNP’s case for minimum pricing. Gillan disagrees, however, and argues that while the situation is particularly acute in Scotland, alcohol consumption has doubled in the last 50 years across the UK, with Scots drinking around 12 litres of alcohol per person a year, and those in England and Wales drinking around 10 litres, compared with 5 litres in 1960.
“Across the UK our harm levels are at historically high levels and unfortunately for us in Scotland, when you break it down, we are drinking even more. But to claim this shows that price is not a factor really does not hold up if you look at it in the context of our consumption and harm,” she says.
In the 1970s, a bottle of vodka cost the equivalent of £45, she says. Today a litre bottle of own-brand vodka retails at just over £5 in one of the UK’s largest supermarkets.
“So it is the affordability of alcohol relative to income that has been the thing that has fuelled the increase in consumption, which in turn has led to the high harm levels,” she states.
While the 2010 Act did not, in the end, include minimum pricing; the Government did successfully ban quantity discounts and restrict promotions in off-sales – measures which come into force next month. While these steps are to be welcomed, their effectiveness has nevertheless been diluted by the absence of minimum pricing, Gillan argues.
“The reason we were arguing last year that minimum pricing is critical as part of any comprehensive strategy was that our fear was that retailers would just reduce the unit price of the bottle of wine – they are not allowed to make it cheaper to buy three for 10, so what they do is make the unit cost £3.30. So that was always the danger, if we support the ban on multi-discount buys but without a floor price mechanism in place there were always going to be ways to get round that.” By raising the price of alcohol, you are also sending out the message alcohol is not a normal grocery item, which, she says, was another important but less talked of purpose of the legislation.
“By putting the mechanism in place, what we are doing is saying to people, ‘Do you know what, we’ve gone a bit out of kilter with this.
This product is not an ordinary grocery item.
It is currently sold as one – you can buy it anywhere and everywhere seven days a week.
But actually, this is not an ordinary product despite this creeping normalisation.’” If you want people to engage in sensible drinking then you need sensible pricing, she maintains. However, price is not the only factor influencing our relationship with alcohol, and so alongside minimum pricing, Gillan also calls for greater action to address the availability and marketing of alcohol. At its national licensing conference last week, Alcohol Focus Scotland published a report looking at the availability of alcohol and made a number of recommendations that Gillan believes will give more “meaningful” effect to Scotland’s unique licensing objective to protect and improve public health.
“We are the only country in the UK that has a public health objective in our licensing legislation. But it has not been used in the best way at the moment. Boards are not giving meaningful effect to that public health objective.
“…So availability is the thing next to price that we need to go on.” Similarly, she says action on alcohol marketing is also required, pointing out that we are “inundated” with pro-alcohol messages, with social occasions such as sporting events and music festivals drenched in alcohol branding.
It is time to address the “creeping normalisation” of alcohol, she says, adding her hope that the Bill, when reintroduced, will present an opportunity for Scots to engage in a frank discussion around these issues and the Scottish Government to take decisive action.
“If you want to encourage change, it is very difficult for people to exercise responsibility in a physical and social environment that is so pro-alcohol and is promoting both access and excess,” she says, adding that she believes it is time to put some of the regulation back into the system.
“We had it in the system, but we’ve taken it out and it has been progressive liberalisation for the last 30 years. We’ve paid the price for that in terms of harm, so all we are talking abut here is putting some of the regulation that we’ve taken out of the system back into it.”