Brian Monteith: Why more regulation on alcohol?

Neo-prohibitionists have kept quiet about falling booze consumption, writes Brian Monteith
Former Labour party communications director Alastair Campbell. Picture: GettyFormer Labour party communications director Alastair Campbell. Picture: Getty
Former Labour party communications director Alastair Campbell. Picture: Getty

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former in-your-face press secretary and a recovered alcoholic, was at the Labour Party conference last week, and is now attending the Conservative Party conference – to help promote the case for a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government, having already passed the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act to allow its own unit price of 45p awaits a lengthy legal process as the Scotch Whisky Association challenges the legislation. The SWA is now appealing a Court of Session ruling that the legislation is legal and may yet go to the Supreme Court in London and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg if subsequent decisions go against it.

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Then there’s also the opposition within the EU itself, where the governments of Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have all lodged objections with the European Commission that is considering the Scottish Government’s application for an exemption from trade regulations that it is believed the minimum pricing law breaks.

The legislation itself took long enough to pass through Holyrood, falling at the first attempt because the SNP did not have a majority. After the SNP’s spectacular victory in 2011, the opposition parties caved in, recognising they could not stop it, although the SNP’s argument was never compellingly won.

Indeed the evidence that it might work, based upon a study at Sheffield University, has not only been torn apart time after time for relying on dubious use of statistics, but has never confronted the glaring flaw in its logic. Namely, if the price of alcohol is crucial to levels of alcoholism, alcohol-related illnesses and bad behaviour, why are such problems of a relatively smaller scale in England and countries on the European continent where alcohol is cheaper?

Logic would suggest they would be worse, but they are not. Scottish alcohol consumption is traditionally 20 per cent higher than in England even though prices are at least the same and often lower at independent grocers and in English pubs.

The answer is that attitudes to alcohol are not economic but cultural, and changing this factor takes a great deal more effort than passing a law that penalises the moderate majority to try and deal with a small minority.

Until the idea of setting a minimum floor price for alcohol was mooted, governments had sought to encourage moderation through slapping higher excise duties on different types of booze and initiating various educational campaigns and information requirements or warnings.

The argument was that these just did not work – more force, more control was needed.

Governments need to be seen to be doing something, politicians need to be able to report they are acting in our best interest and of course the cost to the public purse of alcohol-related crime and health complaints gives all government machines an added incentive to intervene.

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The studies about the dangers of alcohol never consider the social benefits, only the problems, so a one-sided debate is always the result. Any economic activity such as local employment, company profits and foreign earnings from exports are to be sneered at and dismissed as corporate vested interests – ignoring the vested interest of the state and especially the taxpayer-funded lobbyists who through their demands for greater public control are rent-seeking from their government paymasters.

But what if the attempts at education, providing more information and the talking-up by public figures and role models of greater moderation have been getting through?

Surprisingly to the advocates of neo-prohibition, new official Scottish statistics showed last week that Scotland’s love affair with alcohol is cooling, that alcohol consumption is falling – and at significant rates.

You might have thought that there would have been a plethora of press releases and a murder of media interviews extolling this good news, but the alcohol controllers were strangely silent.

Why? Because falling alcohol consumption undermines the case for ever-stricter regulations; it was a particularly bitter potion to sup.

Between 2003 and 2012, average unit consumption in Scottish adults fell from 14.1 to 11.3 units per year – with men drinking an average of 4.6 units less per week (15.2 in 2003 against 19.8 in 2012) and women drinking 1.4 units less (9.0 against 7.3 units).

The figures for heavy drinkers were especially encouraging; the proportion of adults drinking at hazardous or harmful levels has declined from 33 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women to 25 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women.

In the case of those with a large consumption – that the minimum price law is meant to target by punishing everybody – the statistics undermine the case for punitive measures. Analysis shows that average consumption on the heaviest drinking day of men and women declined; that there has been a decline in the percentage of men and women exceeding the daily recommended alcoholic intake on their heaviest drinking day; and that those drinking twice the recommended daily amount has also fallen – all by significant amounts.

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The facts reveal that Scots are drinking less in general and less when they drink excessively – and are drinking less often and less regularly. No matter which way the figures are looked at, the answer suggests public education works.

That is not to say that complacency in tackling chronic alcoholism is required from public health officials or that we should not worry about public order issues. The focus, however, should move to targeted help and more effective policing of those who lose their self control – leaving those of us who enjoy our alcohol to do so without additional cost or harassment.

People cannot be bullied into changing their lifestyles. The public health industry must seek to persuade rather than enforce. Alastair Campbell should try it.