Leaders: Better the glass that’s half full

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THIS weekend, we are on the cusp of a double-whammy U-turn by the coalition government at Westminster.

Last week, it abandoned plans to impose plain packaging of cigarettes on tobacco companies; this week it is expected to renounce all but the most modest features of David Cameron’s proposal for minimum pricing of alcohol. Both policies are being pursued by the Scottish Government.

So, is this Scotland blazing a trail where English fainthearts fear to tread? The Scottish Government is taking the more principled course in protecting public health, but the debate is complex. We would do well to assess the prospects of such legislation in a realistic manner.

Both tobacco and alcohol are killers: the medical evidence is unambiguous. Insofar as there is any objection in principle to the proposed legislation it can only be founded on the issue of individual freedom and whether the state is overstepping its legitimate powers in compelling people to save their lives.

The “nanny state” charge is philosophical rather than medical, and those who take a firm stance on the matter will be immovable. For those appalled by unnecessary and premature deaths caused by smoking, the priority will be to improve the life expectations of Scots. The pioneering ban on smoking in public places signalled Holyrood’s response to this health challenge. Considering its effect on pubs and other social venues, that was a much more radical measure than requiring companies to sell cigarettes and tobacco in plain packaging.

There is academic support for the effectiveness of unbranded packaging. A recent wide-ranging study at Stirling University concluded that “plain packaging represents an additional tobacco control measure that has the potential to contribute to reductions in the harm caused by tobacco smoking now and in the future”. Australia has plain packaging. The face-saving pretext for the coalition’s back-pedalling was the need to observe how the Australian initiative works out. In the light of the evidence and the commitment of the Scottish Government to tackle Scotland’s health problems, a majority of Scots will want Alex Salmond’s Government to stick to its guns and legislate for plain packaging of tobacco products.

The minimum pricing of alcohol, in contrast, presents a dilemma. In principle, it is a good idea. In practice, it looks like a non-starter. The history of the legislation testifies to the controversy in which it was mired – defeated, then reintroduced. There were legitimate doubts about how effective it would be, with the danger that the most toxic drinks such as Buckfast (already sold at more than 60p per unit) would actually become more popular, as beverages with lower ABV content fell foul of the 50p legislation. Responsible drinkers could have been penalised – and there were concerns about its effect on the £4 billion Scotch whisky industry. All that is now largely academic.

Although the Scottish Government defeated a legal challenge in the Court of Session, 12 European states have objected that the legislation breaches EU competition law. The Scottish Government is under “formal notice” by the European Commission; if it proceeds with minimum pricing it will incur “infraction” proceedings in the European Court of Justice. Politics being the art of the possible and despite health secretary Alex Neil’s bullish approach, the Scottish Government may have little option but to abandon alcohol legislation and press ahead with plain packaging of cigarettes – settling for a 1-0 win over Westminster.

Allow ecstasy tests

ANOTHER seven young Scots have died needlessly at the hands of the pushers who knowingly sell toxic chemical compounds to the unsuspecting. Deaths from the real thing – ecstasy, the drug that defined the dance generation – have been well-documented. Now the fatalities are mounting among those who buy what they think is ecstasy but turns out to be a more deadly concoction. Police in Scotland report that seizures of the drug leapt by more than 60 per cent in Scotland in 2011-12. Part of this is due to the fact that the craze for “legal highs” has now waned, leaving its own trail of casualties in its wake. Eager to recapture the market, drugs barons have started pushing the familiar ecstasy, and its imitators, again. All of this leaves the agencies which deal with the fall-out and law enforcement agencies struggling to keep up. With no parliamentary desire to legalise drugs, better education of the dangers and enforcement of the law remains the only way open to combat the menace to a youthful population too bound by peer pressure to listen. The Netherlands has a different solution, with its government setting up of 30 testing centres where ecstasy users can, without fear of recrimination, have their purchases tested before use. It’s an imperfect semi-solution to an intractable problem; it may not reduce ecstasy use but it can identify dangerous batches of drugs before they circulate too widely. If it can help to save lives then it ought to be worth considering here, too.