SNP's minimum drinks pricing is dead in the water

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THE SNP government's plans to impose a 45p minimum drink price have been dealt what is almost certainly a fatal blow after opposition MSPs voted down the controversial policy.

• Nicola Sturgeon vowed to try again

Members of Holyrood's health committee blocked the flagship SNP policy, when MSPs approved a Conservative amendment to remove the minimum price of 45p per unit from the Alcohol Bill.

The SNP had offered to introduce a "sunset clause" into the legislation, which would review the policy after six years.

Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced the timescale for the sunset clause for the first time at yesterday's committee, after consultation with health professionals and other alcohol experts.

However, the compromise position was rejected by a margin of five to three votes, with only Nationalist members of the committee supporting the plans.

The defeat came after the policy was voted down at an earlier parliamentary stage by MSPs.

A defiant Ms Sturgeon vowed to bring minimum pricing back to the full parliament at the third and final stage of consideration of the bill, despite the two defeats.

• So what's alternative to curb Scotland's alcohol abuse?

• Finnish experience suggests price can have strong effect

Minimum pricing is now supported only by the SNP, the Greens and Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald, which means the policy is almost certain to be rejected when it returns to Holyrood in October or November.

Ms Sturgeon had appealed to the health committee to back the minimum price of 45p on the grounds that it would lead to major health improvements.

In the first year, there would be 50 fewer deaths, 1,200 fewer hospital admissions, 400 fewer violent crimes and millions of pounds saved in healthcare, she said.

Ms Sturgeon told the committee: "I find it disheartening that some colleagues feel we can't be the first to try a new approach, that we must stand back and wait for someone else to pursue an action before doing something ourselves.

"I argue that the scale of our problem means we need to take action now."

The minister said the sunset clause would give parliament a chance to think again about the policy to see if there had been health benefits from it.

Ms Sturgeon said: "My suggestion to the committee is simple. Let the policy run for six years, let ministers come back after five years with evidence of what impact it has had, and then take a decision on whether it should continue or whether it should be scrapped."The health secretary went on to say that the amendment against minimum prices tabled by Tory MSP and committee member Mary Scanlon showed a "disregard" for health and wellbeing."

Ms Sturgeon said: "Mary Scanlon is asking the committee to put aside the potential benefits of minimum pricing policy without presenting any credible alternative.

"She fails to accept that minimum pricing would be effective and efficient, it would be targeted, proportionate and would make a real impact on consumption and harm."

However, the Conservative MSP claimed that minimum pricing would discriminate against moderate drinkers.

Ms Scanlon said: "The minimum price does not pass this test as an evidence base to reduce alcohol consumption.

"Minimum pricing would penalise responsible drinkers, it would harm the Scottish whisky industry, it would cost jobs, it's questionable whether it complies with European law.

"The most effective method is to target problem drinks with extra tax and duty on a UK-wide basis."

Labour, which set up its own commission to study alcohol issues, called for a ban on sales below the "floor price" of the cost of production, plus the cost of duty and VAT.

The party also wants a legal limit on the amount of caffeine in alcoholic drinks, a move which would effectively ban Buckfast.

Labour's health spokesman Jackie Baillie said: "The facts are that the Scottish Government has not been able to get a parliamentary majority because they have lost the argument.

"This policy is effectively a tax on the poor, paid directly to the shareholders of the big supermarkets."

Lib Dem health spokesman Ross Finnie also rejected the plan and said tax has a role to play in Scotland's problem with tackling alcohol abuse.

Mr Finnie said: "I think if we are not careful, there is a real risk that we run this debate on the basis of an entirely polarised debate whereby everything the SNP government says on alcohol is rubbish, and everything I say on behalf of the Liberal Democrats is right.

"I do not believe that such an approach will contribute to the public believing that we are taking seriously the debate on alcohol."

A leading charity that raises awareness about the effects of alcohol abuse, claimed that a "robust" pricing policy for drink was needed.Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "Scotland is going to have to think seriously about what it will do about alcohol abuse if the parliament is not prepared to support minimum pricing.

"Until there are proper pricing measures in place, we'll continue to see alcohol-related harm," she added.

However, Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of lobby group the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, welcomed the MSPs' decision.

Mr Beadles said: "The minister should accept her defeat and ensure that this flawed and failed policy provides no further distraction from the other measures in the bill which could have a far-reaching impact on the industry and on Scottish consumers."