Minimum pricing came about in response to soaring alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in Scotland. In the 1980s, there were around 600 alcohol-related deaths per year – by the mid 2000s this had increased to 1,500. Right now, an average of 24 Scots lose their lives to alcohol every single week.
Increasing price has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as a highly effective way to reduce consumption and harm. It became clear that minimum pricing was more effective than tax because it targets the drinks which we know the heaviest and most dependent drinkers purchase, in particular high-strength white cider. What Alcohol Focus Scotland, BMA Scotland, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and the many other organisations which have supported minimum pricing didn’t realise was just how long and difficult a journey it would be.
Minimum unit pricing directly links the price of drinks to their strength. This means that a pint in the pub won’t cost any more but certain products on the shelves of supermarkets and corner shops will cost much more than they do just now. For example three-litre plastic bottles of strong white cider (7.5 per cent abv) can be purchased for less than £4. That’s 22 units of alcohol, which works out at 18p per unit. Under a 50p minimum unit price that bottle of cider will cost at least £11.25. These changes will affect those who drink most and suffer the most harm. Moderate drinkers will only pay around £2.25 per year extra.
Fronted by the Scotch Whisky Association, Big Alcohol fought minimum unit pricing tooth and nail. Like Big Tobacco, they seek to delay, distract or derail any measure which would impact on their vast profits, no matter what the devastating human cost. It was a shrewd move by Diageo and other global alcohol producers to have the Scotch Whisky Association front the challenge. The iconic image of Scotch whisky and small Highland distilleries is a far cry from the strong white ciders and cheap vodkas that were really being protected here. The long-term damage to the Scotch Whisky Association’s reputation remains to be seen but they surely haven’t done themselves any favours in so aggressively challenging the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament.
It’s been a long road which has proved costly in terms of time, money and, tragically, the estimated 400 people whose lives could have been saved if the legislation had been implemented five years ago.
We can all think of someone whose life has been cut short because of alcohol, a family that’s broken up, or someone who has had an accident or been assaulted when drunk. In the first year alone, a 50p minimum unit price could prevent 60 alcohol-related deaths, 1,600 hospital admissions and 3,500 crimes. The saving to the NHS and other public services that deal with the fallout of alcohol runs to millions of pounds.
The global public health community have been watching the progression of minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland with great interest. This is a test case which demonstrates that we can be successful in protecting people from health-damaging products, not just tobacco. Strong evidence isn’t always enough, particularly when such powerful corporate interests are involved. It is to the Scottish Government’s credit – led from the front by Nicola Sturgeon both as Health Secretary and as First Minister – that they persisted in seeing this life-saving policy through.
Minimum unit pricing is not a panacea. Scotland’s alcohol problems will not be solved overnight and much more needs to be done to address the availability and accessibility of alcohol, as well as ensuring treatment services are geared up to support people with problems as effectively as possible. But Scotland should be proud that we are the first country in the world to establish minimum unit pricing. I hope it will also encourage us all to openly discuss and debate the role and impact of alcohol in Scotland and to start changing our relationship with it for the better.
Alison Douglas is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk