European alcohol pricing decision a real headache

Minimum unit pricing of alcohol has been one of the SNP government's most vigorously supported policies. Picture: Getty
Minimum unit pricing of alcohol has been one of the SNP government's most vigorously supported policies. Picture: Getty
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Ruling on alcohol pricing will be tough to counter, writes Neil McKeganey

The Scottish Government may be putting a brave face on it, but the ruling from the European Parliament that minimum unit pricing of alcohol can only be adopted where there is clear evidence that the claimed benefits of the policy cannot be achieved by any other means must have left a bitter taste in minister’s mouths.

Minimum unit pricing of alcohol has been one of the SNP government’s most vigorously supported policies and one that they must face a massive legal bill fighting for in the European Court.

The Parliament’s ruling delivers the Scottish Government with a difficult problem: How do you show that your favoured policy, not yet implemented, is more effective than any other measures to hand?

The first thing to say about that ruling is that if, after having assembled all of the evidence, the European Court still rejects the case, then all Scotland is left with by way of tackling its alcohol problem are measures that the government itself will already have claimed are relatively ineffective. How, you might wonder, would they justify continued expenditure of public money on initiatives it will have described as relatively ineffective?

The second difficult issue this ruling brings forward is the question of what would stand as evidence that the minimum unit pricing of alcohol could achieve reductions in alcohol consumption greater than any other measure.

What the Scottish Government will almost certainly do is turn to the University of Sheffield for more modelling work showing the benefits such a policy could deliver. You don’t have to be a genius to spot that any such work is bound to generate different interpretations. By their nature, models of human behaviour involve a simplification of what people might do in the real world, and it is for that reason that modelling is an imperfect science.

The clearest evidence of just how complicated this can be can be seen in a recent publication in a special issue on the problems of gambling, drinking, and smoking in the Journal of Business Research. What the researchers, led by Professor Chris Hackley, found was that some people react to health warnings on the amount of alcohol consumed by doing the very opposite of what they are advised.

In the words of the researchers: “The data suggest that transgression of official norms and rules is an inherent part of counter-cultural alcohol consumption for some groups, and therefore alcohol policy messages that ostensibly seek to dissuade targeted groups from engaging in certain drinking practices, may unwittingly contribute to the discursive constitution of those very practices”. Put a lot less grandly: you can tell people till you are blue in the face not to drink more than a certain amount of alcohol and they will stick two fingers up to you and enjoy doing so, whilst in all probability drinking well over your advised limits.

So the debate on minimum pricing for alcohol will now switch from the courts to the academic arena and the researchers will be asked to provide the proof of the policy the government wants to implement.

When a government looks to academia to provide evidence for its favoured policy we should all be uncomfortable. Universities love government funding – they depend upon it. So the temptation will be to accept the government’s largesse and to deliver the findings the government wants to hear. Only in this case, the audience will not be sympathetic Scottish Government ministers but sceptical European legal experts.

Minimum unit pricing of alcohol may turn out to be a policy that, for all the heated debate and contested legal procedures, never actually leaves the drawing board. If I were advising the government right now on this policy, I would tell them to look at tobacco plain packaging, because here we have another policy that is being vigorously promoted by supporters, both inside and outside of government, but for which the evidence of its beneficial impact is far from conclusive. The lack of that evidence does not seem to be hampering government’s in rushing to adopt tobacco plain packaging as a way of reducing smoking related harm.

Public policy, it seems, is as hard to predict as the behaviour of people it is trying to change.

Neil McKeganey, PhD is a sociologist and part of the team at the Centre for Drug Misuse Research