Amid a ‘refresh’ of Scotland's alcohol strategy, are we going in the right direction?

Written by Alan Robertson on 4 February 2016 in Feature

As Holyrood debates legislation on alcohol put forward by Labour's Dr Richard Simpson, Holyrood considers the current landscape

Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is changing, though, evidently, slowly. Despite increased awareness of the harm caused, the latest evaluation of Scotland’s alcohol strategy suggests public knowledge and attitudes around alcohol haven’t really budged in the last ten years.

The latest effort came a few weeks ago as chief medical officers across the UK unveiled new guidelines advising men and women to consume no more than 14 units in a given week, a change brought about by fresh evidence of the link between alcohol and cancer.

“Actually, it doesn’t matter what you set it at,” says Dr Richard Cooke, senior lecturer in health psychology at Aston University. “If you’re going to use units, nobody knows what a unit is. Alcohol researchers know what a unit is, scientists know what a unit is, the general public, they’ve no idea what a unit is – they don’t use units to think about their drinking.”

Awareness of units is in fact high, according to work by Stirling and Sheffield universities, though the ability to measure and count intake is poor. That stems from a myriad of factors, including an increase in the strength of most wines plus a greater variety of beers and ciders now on offer.

The fact more drinking now takes place at home also complicates the picture. Almost three-quarters of alcohol sold in Scotland in 2014 was via off-sales, the highest market share since recording began two decades earlier. “We’re a nation of take-home drinkers,” remarks Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA).

December’s European Court of Justice ruling on minimum unit pricing was claimed as a victory by both sides in the protracted legal wrangle. Irrespective of which side the Court of Session now comes down on, another legal battle looms at the UK Supreme Court.

“At a UK level, we need to be making the case – and the Scottish Government needs to be making the case – for using taxation to reduce harm,” says Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS). “This would be complimentary to minimum unit pricing. Unfortunately, we’ve been going backwards at UK level on that.”

Pricing is not the only avenue campaigners are keen to pursue, though. AFS, for instance, would like to see “stronger restrictions” on sport sponsorship and advertising. Addressing the Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Edinburgh last October, the First Minister made a point of stressing the Scottish Government’s support for a 9pm watershed when it comes to broadcast advertising.

This, however, as Nicola Sturgeon reminded observers, was not within her gift, broadcasting being reserved to Westminster. “Even if broadcast media is reserved to Westminster there are other things that the Scottish Government can do to protect children from exposure to alcohol advertising that would enable us to begin moving in the right direction,” counters Douglas.

Indeed, as ministers prepare to embark on a ‘refresh’ of the 2009 strategy, the AFS chief executive – who was responsible for the development and implementation of the original blueprint in her former role as head of alcohol policy and delivery within government – intimates a desire to see potentially controversial proposals, such as a social responsibility levy and alcohol-only checkouts, which the Scottish Government has previously considered only to then shelve, explored again. Even putting minimum unit pricing to one side, though, ministers have not necessarily shied away from potential controversies.

The change in the legal drink-drive limit just over a year ago saw Scotland adopt the lowest threshold in the UK, albeit Northern Ireland will soon go further after legislation was passed last month. Police figures published in the last fortnight showed the number of people found to be above the drink-drive limit between December 3 and January 1 rose almost a third on the previous year. That as an SLTA survey of 600 businesses found 40 per cent of trade in rural areas were down or showed no growth over the festive period.

“We’re collateral damage in this idea that nobody should have one drink, which is utter nonsense,” says Waterson, citing that of the 459 drivers caught, only 19 were found to be between the old and new limit. “If we had a penalty system based around a points system then it would give a bit of flexibility. It’s rather like saying to somebody, ‘you can’t drive over 30mph in a 30 limit and if you drive at 35mph we’re going to give you a 20-year criminal record’. It’s nonsense.”

It is no secret that relations between police and parts of the licensed trade had soured in the early days of a single force amid disquiet over its enforcement strategy. Talks between Police Scotland and trade reps from across the country took place last June, just weeks after Glasgow Licensing Board controversially imposed a midnight closing time on The Arches venue following police complaints about drug and alcohol incidents.

Agreement on formal terms of reference for a national licensing trade forum is expected later this month, bringing police and different parts of the trade together on a regular basis. “Of course, the environment of licensing across Scotland differs for lots of reasons,” says Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams, who oversees the force’s national licensing and violence reduction unit.

“But we want to make sure that the professional approach we take is a consistent one and the licensed trade associations know what to expect from us and can have a confidence in the service that we deliver so that there are no surprises.”

A national database for licensing – known as Innkeeper – is also scheduled to go live within the next few weeks. “It records all aspects of a visit to allow us to ensure that we have a catalogue of information,” says Williams. “When people apply for relicensing, licensing extensions or extraordinary licenses for particular events, we’re [then] able to go back and properly evidence our support – or otherwise – based on our experience of dealing with that premises, shop or whatever it may be, in the visits we’ve made.”

Williams, who was local police commander of the Edinburgh City Division until his promotion to ACC seven weeks ago, had – along with other public agencies – been vocal previously in his belief that the capital had an overprovision of licensed premises. “There are some examples of licensing boards that do work very effectively, are very proactive and absolutely work to the licensing objectives that they’ve set. And there are others that don’t do it so well,” he says.

“The overarching principles of licensing in Scotland are about public safety and wellbeing and managing that. And I sometimes am concerned that the economic vitality of an area, or a city even – and I reflect back to my experience in Edinburgh – is always prioritised over public safety. There has to be a balance struck between the two.” 

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