Alcohol bill could weaken effort to fight drink cultureMSPs report

A minimum alcohol price could “undermine” efforts to tackle problem drinking, opposition MSPs have warned in a report.

The measure could also fall foul of EU law, despite SNP claims there is no legal obstacle.

Holyrood’s health committee has backed the controversial measure, which was rejected by MSPs in the last parliament before the Nationalists’ landslide election win last year.

The SNP-dominated committee pointed to the expected reduction in harmful drinking and the benefits to public health, crime figures, pressure on services and the economy as it endorsed the principles of the bill.

Minimum pricing is now set to be introduced as law this year, but a minority report warned it may have little impact on alcohol abuse.

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“Some members remain unconvinced by the efficacy of minimum pricing and believe a universal approach may penalise moderate drinkers and also those in lower income groups,” the report states. “They question whether the bill’s policy aspirations of reducing the harm and social cost associated with alcohol misuse can be achieved to the extent envisaged.”

Off-licences, as well as pubs and clubs are set to enjoy a “windfall” as prices rise, which the opposition MSPs warn “may undermine the policy intentions” of the bill, as it could incentivise them to sell more alcohol.

The SNP government has not yet set the minimum price. It was proposed at 45p last time, but could be increased.

The drinks industry insists the measure breaches EU law on restriction of trade. Measures aimed at protecting public health – such as minimum pricing – can be exempt from these laws, but legal chiefs warned the committee that only a court challenge could provide a “100 per cent definite view” on this.

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Lengthy legal proceedings could “detract attention or divert resources” from wider efforts to challenge Scotland’s drink culture, the report says.

And health secretary Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol was one of the “most pressing public health challenges” facing the nation.

If the minimum price had been set at 45p, it would have resulted in an own-brand bottle of vodka increasing in price from £8.35 to £11.85, while a two-litre bottle of cider would have increased from £1.20 to £3.75. The cost of a bottle of inexpensive wine would move up from £3.75 to £4.20.

Health committee convener, Labour MSP Duncan McNeil said: “Alcohol misuse is clearly one of Scotland’s biggest challenges in terms of our nation’s health. The committee recognised this bill represents one element in a range of measures to reduce alcohol consumption.”

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Nationalist vice-convener Bob Doris added: “The blight of harmful alcohol consumption has negatively impacted upon Scotland’s health, crime and economy for too long.”

Ms Sturgeon indicated she will set the minimum price at the next parliamentary stage, before the bill is passed by MSPs.

A government spokesman said: “There continues to be substantial support for the policy, which this government was mandated to introduce.”