Lesley Riddoch: Drinks industry is falling behind

THE SWA’s face-off may be too late, as public opinion on our relationship with booze seems to be changing, writes Lesley Riddoch

THE SWA’s face-off may be too late, as public opinion on our relationship with booze seems to be changing, writes Lesley Riddoch

Can the Scottish Government’s minimum alcohol price survive legal threat by the Scotch Whisky Association? Judging from recent headlines, the answer is no. But maybe some observers have written off the SNP’s most radical public health initiative o’er fast.

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In deciding to oppose minimum pricing in the Court of Session and European Commission, the SWA has revealed the drinks industry in its true profit-focused colours and may have made an untimely gaffe.

Ever since Nicola Sturgeon first backed higher unit prices of alcohol to reverse a situation where supermarket cider is cheaper than bottled water, the threat of legal challenge has rumbled away.

Back in the pre-crash days of 2007, market intervention was a scary prospect. Suppose politicians fiddling with complex price mechanisms killed the golden goose? Suppose a collapse in demand meant a collapse in drink-related jobs? And then, with classically Scottish contrariness, suppose a rise in price had no effect on consumption anyway?

Times have changed. In 2012 the drinks industry is not opposing the easily derided policy of a minority government. Since the Alcohol Bill was passed without opposition this May (supported by Tories and Lib Dems, with Labour abstaining) they’re trying to block the “settled will” of Holyrood. Whaur’s your wild-eyed abolitionists noo?

This time round civic society has joined pro-minimum pricing professional groups like the Scottish BMA and the police – and started to shunt the crackdown express out of the sidings.

Friday’s booze ban on late night trains was apparently ScotRail’s response to customer complaints. I’m sure that’s true – though with just 162 alcohol-related incidents reported last year, complaints are at an all-time low and on train “crime” has apparently fallen year-on-year since 2004.

The only thing that’s changed in Scotland is public opinion. Just as critical mass was finally reached in the bid to outlaw smoking in public places, so critical mass may have arrived in the bid to outlaw cheap, ubiquitously accessible booze.

Academic evidence of harm is mounting up – the latest research shows a clear link between the number of alcohol retail outlets and the number of drink-related incidents of violence, nuisance behaviour and crime in a neighbourhood.

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Public opinion is on the move – and the drinks industry is being left behind. Of course the big companies are still happy to “work in partnership” on schools projects or glossy advice leaflets to tackle problem drinking. But now that society has decided tougher action is needed, the gloves have finally come off.

Consider what a gamble the SWA board has taken with the reputation of its members. The current government was elected with a landslide majority in 2011 which forced Alex Salmond’s most powerful political rivals to concede his right to hold an independence referendum. But even though minimum pricing was included in that same manifesto, the Scottish drinks industry thinks it can oppose the government’s right to legislate – against the will of the Scottish Parliament, the process of electoral democracy and perhaps the grain of public opinion.

Why? The world’s largest drinks outfit, Diageo – until recently head of the SWA board – was sufficiently untroubled by minimum pricing last month to announce plans for a £1 billion investment in new Scottish distilleries to supply rising demand abroad.

Ironically Scots prefer vodka – the spirit that’s done most to dent domestic whisky sales – so 80 per cent of the amber bead is exported. Whisky prices abroad would be unaffected by Scottish minimum unit prices. So why undertake expensive legal action to “protect” Scottish whisky when it isn’t under threat – just because the industry can?

Well, maybe it can’t. In 2009 the European Commission said minimum pricing might be lawful if it could target heavy drinkers and prove it was proportionate to the problems caused by alcohol. The Scottish Government estimates that damage from alcohol abuse costs taxpayers £3.5bn a year – that’s more than the entire education budget. So Nicola Sturgeon is quietly confident she can head off the SWA’s legal challenge and can see off its “ultra vires” claim with the same “proportionate public health” defence. Price-setting may be a power reserved to Westminster, public health very definitely is not.

The SWA’s action is not over lost whisky sales in Scotland, it’s over the international precedent Scotland might provide. That’s why its legal bid is being backed by the European Spirits Organisation.

Just like the tobacco industry’s two year-long legal wrangle over the public smoking ban, the drinks industry will try to oppose, or at least delay, any restriction on trade, be that advertising, price hikes or licensing restrictions, because if Scotland becomes an alcohol price-rising pioneer other countries will follow.

But the drinks industry may have waited too long to mount their legal challenge. Back in 2007 the market was sacred. Now the “right” for big multinational companies to trade as they see fit, freed from all public challenge and government regulation, has been thoroughly discredited thanks to the continuing banking crisis, the Olympics policing fiasco and the unlovely spectacle of Coke, Adidas and Samsung lording it over the world famous exhibition of amateur sporting excellence.

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Minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland is not just a little local skirmish about booze. It’s an international battle about the forces of globalisation against the power of individual states to protect the health of their citizens. It’s free trade versus the re-regulation of public life in the wake of scandalously damaging decades of laissez faire.

Let’s be clear. The Alcohol Bill’s sunset clause means that if Nicola Sturgeon’s research is wrong and minimum pricing does not lead to 60 fewer deaths, 1,600 fewer hospital admissions and 3,500 fewer crimes in Scotland within one year, the mechanism will fall five years later. Governments around the world – including the Westminster coalition – are waiting to see how the pioneering Scots get on. Drinks giants around the world are also waiting to see if the crackdown can be averted.

It’s game on. With no male athletes in the Team GB track team, 2012 may not go down as a year of Scottish Olympic glory. But it will be remembered as the year Scotland did something truly memorable in defence of global public health.