Drinks sector chief to urge Holyrood policy change

Skehan will call for changes to Scottish government policy on alcohol. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Skehan will call for changes to Scottish government policy on alcohol. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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ONE of the European drinks industry’s most senior voices will this week turn up the heat on the Scottish Government over its “quick-fix” plans to tackle binge drinking.

Paul Skehan, director general of SpiritsEurope, a Brussels-based umbrella group representing some 30 national trade associations, said the proposal to introduce a minimum price for alcohol would fail to reduce harm and could threaten the prospects for the wider drinks sector.

He is appealing to ministers to sit down with trade bodies, the police, courts and teaching professionals to adopt “a more holistic” approach.

The SNP Government has claimed that the country’s alcohol problems cost nearly £3.6 billion each year and estimates that minimum pricing could save up to 300 lives a year within a decade of its introduction.

It has earmarked a minimum price of 50p per unit and recently won a legal battle to introduce the measure.

However, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) appealed after the Court of Session rejected its claim that Holyrood had overstepped its powers and that the minimum pricing plans breached EU trade laws.

Skehan, who will be attending SpiritsEurope’s annual assembly and congress in Edinburgh, said the European spirits sector as a whole contributed some ¤32 billion (£27.2bn) a year in taxes and was “hugely important” at a time when economies needed investment, exports and employment.

“The challenge is how we can continue to grow at the same time as tackling harm,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “But we simply don’t buy the argument that if you reduce consumption you automatically reduce harm.

“In terms of policy proposals, whether they come out of Scotland or elsewhere, if we see they are targeting consumption rather than targeting harm then we tend to get active. You don’t want to look like the bad guys in black hats and we are not against reductions in harm. We just think this is ineffective.”

He added: “These measures can have a huge impact not only on responsible drinkers but the drinks industry.

“The appeal we would make to the Scottish Government and any others is to work together with the likes of ourselves, the police, courts, educationalists.”

Citing the way in which the issue of drink driving had been tackled, he said: “It has to be something much more fundamental than a quick fix. You are looking at behavioural change rather than simply pushing up prices.”

The group’s annual assembly takes place from today until Tuesday and will hear from a broad range of speakers, including health professionals and those promoting alcohol awareness, in addition to spirits industry bosses.

It will also be one of the last major outings for Gavin Hewitt, who steps down as chief executive of the SWA at the end of the year. His two-year presidency of SpiritsEurope ends in November.

He reiterated his confidence over the minimum pricing appeal, which could see the case go all the way to the European Court of Justice. “Minimum pricing is a serious threat to our success as a sector,” he said. “It’s not just what might happen here in Scotland but how that could set a very dangerous precedent.”

Campaigners welcomed last month’s Court of Session ruling, with charity Alcohol Focus Scotland calling on the drinks industry to drop its opposition to the measure.

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