Drugs tsar urges ministers to up price of 'antisocial' cider

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THE Government today faced calls to help beat antisocial behaviour by ending the tax discounts which make cider cheaper than water.

While west of Scotland politicians campaign against Buckfast, experts say the bigger problem in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland is the ready availability of cheap, high-strength cider.

And they believe the current tax system which imposes lower duty on cider than beer is contributing to the problem.

Edinburgh drugs and alcohol chief Tom Wood said one-litre bottles of cider were now on sale in the Capital for as little as 1.30, less than many bottled waters.

And, he added, the cheap alcohol was being used by underage drinkers just out to get drunk.

The Evening News visited one city centre store today and found that a litre of Three Hammers cider was on sale for as little as 1.19. In comparison, Perrier water was priced at 99p for 75cl.

A ten-year-old girl was last week reported to have been found drunk in Gorebridge after getting hold of a two-litre bottle of cider and drinking it with two friends.

Mr Wood, head of Action on Alcohol and Drugs in Edinburgh, said strong cider was the drink of choice among many people who end up being involved in violence. And he said litre bottles were on sale for just 1.30, compared to 1.40 for some bottled waters and 1.60 for Coca Cola.

"It is literally cheaper than water and it is 7.5 per cent alcohol, which is more than any beer," he said. "It is not a drink you drink for pleasure, it is a drink you drink to get drunk. Walk along Princes Street and you see the empty green bottles littered everywhere.

"You see it traditionally on the shelves with Buckfast and some people will try to mix the two. It is the fuel of antisocial behaviour, rowdyism and street violence."

Mr Wood said a higher tax on cider would help. He added: "It would not cure the problem altogether, but we know if alcohol is a little more expensive, a little harder to get, if advertising is controlled, all these things help in a small way and add up to help in a big way."

Scottish Nationalist justice spokesman and Lothians MSP Kenny MacAskill said cheap, high-strength cider had become a social menace and called for the preferential tax regime to be scrapped.

He said: "Buckfast is a problem in the east of Scotland as well as the west, but not to the same extent. The real problem is the cheapness and strength of cider.

" Unfortunately it is the drink of choice not just for alcoholics but for those who want to get blootered quickly and cheaply.

"Bad behaviour is being fuelled by people getting tanked up on what is available in the shops for less than a bottle of water. There should be a level playing field. High strength ciders should face a higher cost."

Mr MacAskill challenged Health Minister Andy Kerr on the issue in the Scottish Parliament, calling on the Executive to lobby the Westminster government for a higher cider tax.

Mr Kerr replied: "The Executive is well aware of the issue, and I have also made clear my views on the taxation of high-alcohol-by-volume drinks, which are a problem in society. Those views have been passed on and will continue to be passed on to the Treasury."

A Treasury spokesman said the duty on cider was lower than that on beer in recognition of the higher production costs and the importance of cider-making to the rural economy.

He added: "Almost half of UK apples are used for producing cider and it is a major income stream for many farmers. What we have done over the past few years is instigate a real terms reduction in the rate of duty.

"To use the tax system and ramp up the rate of duty on cider would punish the vast majority of people who drink cider responsibly."