Leaders: Minimum pricing can help fight alcohol abuse | Syria could face chemical horror

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News, as the festive season approaches with all the attendant alcoholic celebrations that might entail, that sales of alcohol have been decreasing, is good cheer indeed.

No-one disagrees that Scots are over-fond of a drink and everyone agrees that it is time Scots became more abstemious. But there is still disagreement about the way to achieve that.

A study by NHS Scotland has shown that sales of alcohol have fallen by about 5 per cent in the last two years. The Scottish Government and anti-alcohol abuse campaigners have been quick to attribute that to the cost of alcohol increasing – and are using that to bolster their argument for minimum pricing – which the government is proceeding with.

But the Scotch Whisky ­Association, which is battling the government’s proposed minimum pricing laws in the courts, says the figures show that current initiatives to reduce consumption, presumably including campaigns to encourage responsible drinking, are having the desired effect. It fears the government’s moves will not be compatible with EU laws and will not tackle harmful drinkers but impact on responsible drinkers.

Common sense would seem to suggest that, as with every other mass consumer commodity, if ­alcohol becomes more expensive, people will drink less of it and therefore the harm caused by excessive consumption should reduce. The main cause here is almost certainly the recession, which has reduced people’s disposable incomes.

Having less money to spend on booze has much the same effect as making it more expensive. Increases in the amount of duty payable plus exchange rate fluctuations which have made imported wine more expensive will have reinforced the trend.

That, however, does not mean that minimum pricing at the Scottish Government’s proposed level of 50p per unit is now not an argument. The study showed that two-thirds of alcohol sold last year retailed at less than 50p per unit, an indication that cheapness is still a major issue. The economy is also bound to start growing again, causing disposable incomes to rise. It is reasonable to think that when that happens, alcohol consumption suppressed by recession may start rising again.

Scotland cannot afford that. Deaths from alcohol-related causes are still far higher than south of the Border and average consumption levels are about a fifth higher. It means extra and unnecessary costs for health, social work, police and other services.

Reducing those costs would have major benefits for society. The central fact in all of this is that Scotland has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, certainly more than the other countries in the UK and most countries in Europe.

That unhealthy relationship has to be tackled, and price appears to be a lever that can be used to help. But with England also keen to look at hiking up the price of alcohol, perhaps further increases in duty would be the quicker, cleaner way to go.

Syria could face chemical horror

Appalling though the civil war in Syria is, it could be about to become even ghastlier. American defence ­department officials have been anonymously briefing some media outlets that intelligence sources in Syria are claiming that president Bashir al-Assad’s regime has been moving some of the chemical weapons it is known to have stockpiled.

Verification is an urgent necessity. There should be no repeat of the intelligence fiasco of the weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which were found not to exist.

But if these reports are found to be true, then western powers must act. It must be made abundantly clear to president Assad that even the slightest hint that he might use chemical weapons will lead to immediate retaliation against his regime, to the point of its destruction.

The point is not just to prevent a repetition of the nerve and mustard gas horror that Saddam Hussein visited on the Iraqi town of Halabja 25 years ago. President Assad also possesses missiles capable of reaching Israel and Turkey, and any attack on those countries would invite a retaliation that would turn the Syrian civil war into a Middle East ­conflagration.

The danger doesn’t stop there, however. President Assad may be moving some stockpiles because he believes they may be about to fall into rebel hands, some of whom may be only too pleased to use them, not just to attack him, but also Israel. But if that is indeed his claim, it will have little credibility given his record on breaching ceasefire agreements. This has the potential to become absolutely horrific. Western powers, and Russia and China, take heed.