Alison Douglas: Battle to introduce minimum alcohol prices almost over finishing line

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

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This summer, the UK Supreme Court will hear the Scotch Whisky Association’s final appeal against minimum unit pricing for alcohol. This is the final stage in a long -running legal process which has seen minimum pricing tested in Europe and twice declared legal by Scottish courts. We hope that minimum pricing can at last be introduced early next year; six years after it was passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Minimum pricing came about in response to soaring alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in Scotland. In the 1980s, there were around 600 alcohol-related deaths per year – by the mid-2000s this had increased to 1500.

Low-cost drinks can lead to alcohol problems. Picture: John Devlin

Low-cost drinks can lead to alcohol problems. Picture: John Devlin

The more affordable and easily available a product is, the more of it is consumed. Alcohol is now 54 per cent more affordable than 30 years ago, as supermarkets and shops compete to lure customers in with ridiculously cheap prices and promotions. This has led to a huge shift from pub to home drinking.

It was clear Scotland had to get to grips with our alcohol problem. The political will was there, and following the success of the ban on smoking in public places, there was the opportunity to do something just as bold to address alcohol harm.

Minimum unit pricing directly links the price of drinks to their alcohol content and sets a ‘floor price’ below which a unit of alcohol cannot be sold. Minimum pricing selectively targets the heaviest drinkers because they are the ones drinking the very cheap alcohol. Moderate drinkers are largely unaffected as they don’t buy enough of the cheapest, strongest products to notice much difference.

A pint in the pub won’t cost any more but certain types of product on supermarket and convenience store shelves will cost much more than they do today. For example, a 3 litre bottle of “White Ace” cider at 7.5 per cent abv is on sale at £3.99. One bottle contains 22 units of alcohol – this works out at just 18p per unit. Under a 50p minimum price, that bottle of cider would have to cost at least £11.25.

One reason these strong ciders are sold so cheaply is because of how they are taxed. In its spring Budget, the Government announced a consultation on introducing a new tax band to target cheap, high-strength white ciders – a move which we strongly support.

Doctors and those working in addiction services say heavy drinkers, particularly dependent drinkers, rely on very cheap alcohol. A study of heavy drinkers attending NHS treatment services in Glasgow and Edinburgh found they consumed an average of 185 units of alcohol per week. Cheap vodka and white cider purchased from off-sales – particularly licensed grocers – accounted for most of these units. One participant in the study said he bought white cider because it was “cheaper than heroin” while others talked about using it as a fall-back drink when they were low on cash so they could get the maximum alcohol for the cheapest price.

Vulnerable people including young binge drinkers, those in treatment for alcohol problems, homeless people and street drinkers, account for nearly all sales of these ciders. One major drinks firm which manufactured a popular white cider firstly reduced the strength then withdrew the product altogether because they felt the brand had become so damaged by its customer base and misuse.

They are also appealing to teenagers because they can buy them with their pocket money. Earlier this year a mum from the north-east of England took her campaign to Westminster to urge price increases on strong ciders. Her 16-year- old daughter tragically died after drinking Frosty Jack’s cider at a New Year’s Eve party. She wants to raise awareness of the dangers of these products and for the price to be increased to take account of their strength.

By opposing minimum unit pricing, the Scotch Whisky Association – whose members include global alcohol producers like Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Beam Suntory - aren’t standing up for Scotch whisky, they are supporting drinks at the very cheapest end of the market which are causing untold damage to people’s health, their families and our communities.

In the first year alone, a 50p minimum unit price could mean 60 fewer deaths and over time, hundreds of lives will be saved. It is absolutely unforgiveable for these companies to continue to put their profits before people’s lives.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland, www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk

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