Alyn Smith: Whisky association must accept a sound judgment
The European Commissioner for Health, Tonio Borg, said on Wednesday: “I’m very happy to learn that the litigation regarding the minimum prices has failed in the sense that it has been won by the authorities and, as I have said publicly as well, in principle we are in favour of this approach.” That adds a strong voice to those already calling for this health-giving and life-saving measure.
The legal action raised by the Scotch Whisky Association was defeated because it was, quite simply, wrong and the association should take the advice offered by Tory Jackson Carlaw in the Scottish Parliament this week when he said that the SWA should accept Lord Doherty’s ruling and get on with business in a more responsible manner.
Throwing money and lawyers at something you don’t like and looking for the courts to change the rules is, arguably, an acceptable course to follow. What isn’t open to debate, however, is that minimum pricing is a solid, proven way to tackle problem drinking. By taking this case to the Court of Session the SWA has been wasting public money since the Scottish Government was forced to defend this perfectly sensible health measure, spending money on lawyers and court fees that could be better spent elsewhere.
It might seem strange for Scottish politicians to appear to be attacking a valuable Scottish industry, but the truth is that the members of the Scotch Whisky Association don’t just make whisky. Its biggest members make a huge range of products and they used the good name of the association to try to protect the cheap vodka and other drinks they’ve been pouring down the throats of Scots for far too long.
The Scottish chair of the British Medical Association has put it the clearest: “Any credible alcohol strategy must have at its heart measures to tackle price and availability. Scotland is awash with cheap alcohol and Scots are paying the price with their health. The increasing costs to the health service of treating the harm associated with alcohol misuse could cripple the NHS with a financial burden that is no longer sustainable in the current financial climate.”
The SWA intends to appeal and has a parallel case in the European Court of Justice. I’d advise the association to think again. Minimum pricing is supported by the Scottish Government, the UK government and the European Commission; it has the backing of the health professionals and researchers, and it’s in line with the treaty provisions. Any case in the Court of Justice will fail just as surely as the case in the Court of Session failed.
Action to promote health is allowable in European law and the view from Luxembourg will be the same – a government has the right to protect people’s health. I say to the Scotch Whisky Association, stop wasting your money and ours, stop dragging this health measure through the courts and let Scotland recover from the effects of gutter alcohol. Don’t follow the example of the tobacco industry. I’ll support the industry when it acts responsibly but you can guarantee that my support will be withdrawn in short order when it’s irresponsible and the health of fellow Scots is at stake.
My opposition isn’t to alcohol. I enjoy a glass now and again. My opposition is to the enormous quantities of cheap alcohol being peddled to my fellow Scots day after day.
My opposition is to the enormous social and health costs that result from that trade; to an industry out of control acting irresponsibly and without any regard to the consequences of its actions.
Here’s my challenge to the Scotch Whisky Association: accept the ruling, reform your business practices, promote the high quality products your members make and act responsibly. For my part I’ll be the biggest cheerleader for whisky, for the quality products of Scotland. Good whisky is a high-quality product and a credit to Scotland while the cheap products being protected are a blot on our nation’s reputation.
Carrying on business as usual is simply not acceptable and the damage done to Scots is not acceptable either. There is a consensus in favour of minimum unit pricing now, the SWA should join it. «
• Alyn Smith is an SNP member of the European Parliament