ALEX Neil, the new Scottish health secretary, has warned that the country’s “nightmare problem with the booze” threatens to overwhelm the NHS unless there is a renewed crackdown on excessive drinking.
In his first interview since taking over from Nicola Sturgeon, Neil said that he is firmly behind his predecessor’s plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol and bring into force tougher drink- driving regulations, arguing that the moves will contribute to a substantial reduction in alcohol abuse.
Neil stressed that it is vital to tackle Scotland’s shameful drinking culture to ensure that health care remains affordable at a time when squeezed budgets and an ageing population are placing unprecedented demands on a stretched NHS.
Curbing alcohol abuse now, he said, will prevent the NHS being swamped in the future. “If you look at the profile of people coming into Accident and Emergency, the level of people coming in where there is alcohol misuse involved is very high indeed,” he told Scotland on Sunday.
“I did a visit to an A&E recently and they were telling me that, in one weekend, 70-80 per cent of admissions had an alcohol-related cause. Very clearly, we can’t dodge that. We have to face up to it. Minimum pricing is one way, reducing the level for drink driving is another.”
Neil, only the SNP’s second health secretary, takes control of an £11 billion budget at a difficult time for the health service. He pledged to stick by the government’s commitment to protect the health budget, but added: “That is against a backdrop of rising demand. With the ageing of the population, rising costs of medical technology and the above inflation costs of new medicine it makes it a challenge.”
Although critics have claimed that the SNP government is obsessed with the independence referendum to the exclusion of everything else, Scotland’s poor health record means that Neil’s department must remain in the forefront of policy-making.
Scotland continues to languish at the bottom of European health tables with the worst rates of heart disease and obesity. Last week, statistics showed that healthy life expectancy in Scotland had fallen below 60. But it is the country’s enduring problem with alcohol that Neil has made a priority.
In a sign that he intends to press ahead with the policies introduced by Sturgeon, Neil hit out at the Scotland’s whisky industry for launching a legal challenge to minimum pricing, saying it is “regrettable”. He went on: “I want to work with the whisky industry for the benefit of everybody. I am a whisky drinker myself, but we do need to confront our nightmare problem with booze. I think, like the smoking ban, we will start to see the results of a minimum unit price in a short space of time. It is a great pity there is a legal challenge.”
Neil also backed plans to reduce the drink-driving limit. He said both it and minimum pricing could not be “silver bullets”, but that more would be needed to reduce alcohol consumption further.
Last night, Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, defended the decision to go to court, saying the organisation had “no choice” but to fight to save jobs and the industry. He also pointed out that the latest figures show that alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen by 5 per cent since 2009.
“Such a decline suggests initiatives already in place to reduce alcohol consumption are having an impact. This finding further questions the need to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing – a measure which is likely to be illegal and won’t reduce the number of harmful drinkers,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the SWA added that minimum pricing legislation would do little to reduce harmful drinking in Scotland, but it could allow other countries to put up trade barriers to Scottish exports of whisky.
Neil also told Scotland on Sunday that he was committed to plans to introduce same-sex marriage.