The era of cheap booze is coming to an end '“ at last

In the final part of our Dying for a Drink series we reflect on the momentous decision taken by the Supreme Court making Scotland the first country in the world to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

The ruling has for the most part been hailed by campaigners as the country’s biggest public health breakthrough since the ban on smoking in public places.

The Scottish Government will now introduce the measure early next year with a proposed 50p per unit minimum pricing plan.

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However, bad feeling remains over the behaviour of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) who have been accused of arrogance and costing hundreds of lives by mounting a sustained legal challenge for more than five years after MSPs originally backed minimum unit pricing (MUP) in 2012.

The Supreme Court ruiling is a potential game changer in Scotland's troubled relationship with drink. Picture: John Devlin
The Supreme Court ruiling is a potential game changer in Scotland's troubled relationship with drink. Picture: John Devlin

It’s too early to say if the adverse reaction to the SWA will harm the drinks industry in Scotland long term, but it’s in everyone’s interests not to let bad feeling fester for too long.

Scotch whisky contributes £5bn a year to the UK economy and is a vital part of our culture and heritage. Hopefully the SWA will learn from this and think twice before launching such an aggressive campaign in future while acknowledging their duties towards public health.

Professor Petra Meier of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, who were commissioned by the Scottish Government to examine the case for MUP, estimates that the decision will save 120 lives a year.

She says: “Once it has reached its full effect, the introduction of a 50p minimum unit price in Scotland would result in 120 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 2,000 fewer hospital admissions per year.’’

The Supreme Court ruiling is a potential game changer in Scotland's troubled relationship with drink. Picture: John Devlin

Those at the frontline of dealing with the consequences of the nation’s troubled relationship with alcohol also welcomed the news, while senior emergency services staff laid bare the extent of the problems they face.

Acting director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, Will Linden describes the announcement as an “historic moment for Scotland”.

He adds, “As a country we are taking real steps towards addressing the devastating damage drink has done to our health and communities. Far too often it is access to cheap high proof alcohol which fuels violence on our streets and in our homes. Targeting the lowest price alcohol will help tackle many of the challenges we face. However MUP is just the starting point. We must also address the availability and over-provision of alcohol, while

“Scots of all ages need to have an honest conversation about the impact that alcohol has on our health, behaviour and pocket. The time has also come to consider stopping those who have committed alcohol-fuelled offences from drinking with the aid of appropriate court imposed conditions and support.”

Assistant Chief Officer David McGown, director of prevention and protection for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service provides us with a timely reminder of the problems emergency services face dealing with alcohol abuse on the frontline.

“When people indulge in alcohol they’re more at risk of having a fire and they’re more at risk of becoming a casualty or a fatality in a fire,” he says.

“We constantly find that alcohol plays a significant part in fires and this is particularly prevalent over the Christmas period.

“We have people phoning control rooms who have got a drink inside them and can’t make themselves clear, they can’t provide decent information and they can’t tell our control rooms where, for instance, a casualty is in a house.

“So control rooms rely on that vital information to pass onto firefighters to let them know as much about the job as possible.

“It can be life-threatening stuff, but the frontline impact is after that when our firefighters go to jobs and police and paramedics experience the same thing, which is invariably you get people who’ve had a drink sometimes turning on firefighters. They’re either tampering with equipment or tampering with appliances and physically getting in the way.

“We’ve had firefighters who have gone into houses, awoken people who have maybe had a drink and then they’ve attacked the firefighter – it doesn’t happen every day but it’s a common occurrence.

“They think the firefighters are there not to save them, they maybe think the firefighters are there as a nuisance and they maybe lash out.

“That’s how we see the impact of alcohol – having the fires themselves, becoming a casualty and then the impact of our control operators trying to get information and then the impact on our guys and girls who are going out in fire engines and are just trying to do their job.”

With our series at an end, it remains to be seen whether or not minimum unit pricing will make a difference to those most in need of help.

Certainly it is a vital cog in what should be a raft of measures aimed at helping the poorest in society deal with the blight of chronic alcohol abuse.

The facts say it all – doing nothing was never an option.