Minimum pricing is wrong – with or without brewer's backing

THE announcement by Tennent's, one of the largest producers of beer in Scotland, that it is backing the Scottish Government's plans for minimum pricing of alcohol is, without doubt, a significant coup for the Nationalist administration at Holyrood.

Breaking ranks to become the first alcohol manufacturer north of the Border to support the controversial measure, Tennent's has handed ministers the evidence they need to argue that there is no longer universal opposition to the minimum pricing plan.

As is by now standard practice for this administration, the news of the breakthrough was carefully spun, with the story given first to a red-top newspaper and then followed up by health secretary Nicola Sturgeon's effusive welcome for the development.

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Although the support from Tennent's is significant, one can conclude that the way the news was released was intended by ministers to create the maximum impact and, thereby, obscure the still considerable opposition to their policy.

Despite the support of Tennent's, now owed by C&C, the brewer of Magners cider (which conveniently did not continue to produce the high-strength Tennent's Super lager) we must not forget that a majority of Scotland's alcohol businesses are still opposed to minimum pricing.

The whisky industry, for example, maintains that this plan, however well intentioned in its desire to counter the nation's obvious problem with alcohol, will hit a vital, income-generating part of the Scottish economy.

Opposition parties at Holyrood, including Labour and the Conservatives, maintain that, whilst we have to think hard about how we cope with the abuse of alcohol, minimum pricing is not the answer.

Labour's Jackie Baillie argued yesterday, with some validity, that the SNP's scheme would put millions of pounds in the pockets of the supermarkets and big brewers but not provide extra resources to employ more police officers or pay for alcohol treatment initiatives.

It is also the case that the minimum pricing tool will have little effect on some of the alcoholic drinks that lead to problems seen on our streets at weekends. The alcopops and "tonic" wines such as Buckfast are actually expensive to buy, and there will, therefore, be little or no effect on their sales.

Furthermore, if the measure is intended to tackle the scourge of alcoholism, or the demand that some members of society have to drink large quantities of alcohol, it is likely to be ineffective. Those who feel they must drink, who cannot curb their craving, will continue to drink, no matter the price of alcohol.

Ministers have ignored these arguments, and they will now be able to say that, as well as the medical profession, they have a major producer of alcohol agreeing with them that minimum pricing is part of the solution.

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We continue to believe minimum pricing is wrong-headed, but we accept that the move by Tennent's has given what appeared to be a doomed policy a new lease of life. The debate continues.