Gavin Hewitt: Minimum pricing would damage whisky industry

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE Scottish Government’s ­legislation to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol is a high-profile controversial policy that has generated much debate in Scotland and beyond.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly acknowledged that its legality is challengeable. It is therefore no surprise that a matter of European law is being scrutinised in the courts. That scrutiny should take its course.

The Scotch Whisky Association’s opposition to this policy is consistent. MUP is ineffective, illegal and distorts trade in a way which will bring long-term harm to Scotland and the Scotch whisky industry. The government’s own figures show that MUP will not reduce the number of people drinking at hazardous and harmful levels. Minimum pricing has been ruled illegal by the European Court for 30 years. If MUP was introduced, it would be the first time a health-justified trade barrier has been allowed to distort international trade.

We agree that Scotland has to address alcohol misuse. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has worked with doctors and others for decades to encourage moderate, responsible drinking. MUP will not change attitudes that lead to alcohol misuse. It will also penalise the large ­majority who drink well within the guidelines recommended by the Chief Medical Officer. The target audience needs to be the 30 per cent of drinkers who buy 80 per cent of the alcohol sold.

Alcohol harm in Scotland is falling and has been doing so for more than five years – without MUP. Supporters of the policy promote Canada’s state-controlled pricing as a reason for introducing MUP. However, alcohol-related deaths in Scotland are lower than in British Colombia, where the claimed success of state pricing has been a small reduction in deaths from 25 to 24 per 100,000 residents. This drop of just one in 100,000 is hardly “strong evidence” of success.

The new European Health Commissioner has been reported as supporting minimum pricing. Proponents of MUP use this to call on the SWA to drop its legal opposition. But if you read the Commissioner’s comments in full you will see that he would support minimum pricing “only if it is legal”.

For 30 years the European Court has not allowed minimum pricing for any product. The European Commission and five countries have lodged formal objections to MUP on legal grounds, while six others expressed concerns. Against this background, the Court of Session’s recent decision that the legal position is “clear”, and that MUP is legal, is surprising. From the outset we have urged the Scottish Government to seek an early resolution of the case by seeking reference of the issue to the European Court.

MUP will impact on Scotch whisky. The government’s own figures show that 85 per cent of blended Scotch whisky in the off-trade would be hit; hardly a policy targeting only “cheap products”. If price were shown to be the answer, we and the European Court have said that the legal way to do so is through excise tax, which does not distort trade. Indeed, in the recent ruling in the Court of Session, the judge said that tax would be more effective in addressing harm.

If a trade barrier was introduced in Scotland, overseas countries would grasp the opportunity to introduce health- justified barriers against Scotch whisky imports. This is not a theoretical concern. With Scotch whisky accounting for 80 per cent of Scottish food and drink exports, this would clearly be an own goal for the government.

The government, industry and medical professionals need to work in partnership to bring about further reductions in alcohol abuse. The SWA wants to play its part. Better knowledge about alcohol, an intolerance of binge drinking, an extension of the successful “brief intervention” programme and early guidance through schools and workplaces are required. We should highlight the improved health figures and the reduction in alcohol-related harm, not in a complacent way, but to encourage a cultural change in how alcohol is treated in society. «

Gavin Hewitt is chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association