Legal challenge to minimum alcohol pricing has cost lives, say campaigners

Alcohol Focus Scotland claimed lives would have been saved had the minimum pricing been introduced five years ago. Picture: PA
Alcohol Focus Scotland claimed lives would have been saved had the minimum pricing been introduced five years ago. Picture: PA
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Campaigners fighting against Scotland’s alcohol problem last night accused the drinks industry of putting profit before health and claiming that hundreds of lives had been lost during the legal battle over minimum pricing.

Ahead of this week’s landmark judgment on minimum pricing, Alcohol Focus Scotland claimed lives would have been saved had the measure been introduced five years ago.

Drinks companies were attacked for taking and prolonging the legal action which has delayed the introduction of the policy designed to tackle problem drinking by setting a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol.

The five-year court battle will come to a conclusion on Wednesday when the Supreme Court makes its final ruling on a case which began in May 2013.

“The Scotch Whisky Association have pursued this case to the bitter end,” said Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.

“They have relentlessly put their pursuit of profit over the health of Scots. Hundreds of Scots have lost their lives whilst they have done so. Let’s hope Scotland’s interests win out over those of global corporations.”

She added: “If minimum pricing had been introduced some lives would have been saved and a lot of misery for families would have been avoided.

“We await the Supreme Court’s ruling on minimum pricing with great anticipation. Should it find in favour of the Scottish Government, it will be a landmark victory for democracy and health alike.

“Scotland would be the first country in the world to set a minimum unit price for alcohol and we would lead the way in reducing the burden of alcohol harm. In the first year alone, a 50 pence minimum unit price will prevent an estimated 60 alcohol-related deaths, 1,600 hospital admissions and 3,500 crimes.

“It is heart-breaking that in the five years since the Scottish Parliament passed the legislation we have lost so many people to alcohol who could have been saved. Let’s hope that Wednesday’s ruling will give us the ability to take a huge step forward in preventing and reducing the harm caused by alcohol in Scotland. Given the recently published 10 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths, we badly need it.”

READ MORE: Minimum pricing is all about public health v big business, says Kevan Christie

The 10 per cent rise recorded last year, saw the number of drink related deaths rise to its highest level for six years. Figures recently published by the National Records of Scotland show there were 1,265 deaths in 2016, up 115 from 1,150 in 2015.

Wednesday will see the conclusion of a legal fight that has seen the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) challenge minimum pricing in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the Supreme Court.

The outspoken attack on the drinks industry was launched as alcohol abuse experts revealed that the next step in their battle with the bottle will be to try to convince the Scottish Government to ban sports sponsorship by drinks companies.

Dr Peter Rice, a psychiatrist specialising in the treatment of problem drinkers and the chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said he believed the court would rule in favour of minimum pricing.

He also said SHAAP, which is backed by Scotland’s medical Royal Colleges, now wanted to see an end to alcohol sports sponsorship being taken forward by the Scottish Government. Controls on TV advertising are reserved to Westminster but other marketing channels, including sport, are devolved to Holyrood.

Rice said: “We think sponsorship of sport increases brand awareness amongst children and establishes an inappropriate association between alcohol and health. Ultimately, we believe, alcohol marketing should be taken out of sport.

“Despite the battle over minimum pricing, Scotland has done pretty well on tackling alcohol problems and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But sports sponsorship we think is a big way for companies to market for young people and kids, particularly to start associations with alcohol, so we would really like to see the back of that.

“All of that, however, is not easy to do. There are powerful forces ranged against you. Marketing is self-regulated. The industry polices itself. We just don’t think that’s good enough.

“We know children have a very high brand awareness particularly of the brands that sponsor sports tournaments and teams. If we are really talking about children having an alcohol-free childhood then controlling marketing and sports sponsorship is part of that.”

READ MORE: Minimum alcohol pricing on its way ‘as soon as practicable’

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We’re looking forward to the judgment of the UK Supreme Court on Minimum Unit Pricing. If it is the positive outcome we’ve worked for, we will move quickly to put the policy in place.

“While huge progress has been made in tackling alcohol misuse, we want to go further. Our Framework for Action outlines more than 40 measures to reduce alcohol-related harm, including cutting the drink-drive limit, banning multi-buy offers and irresponsible drinks promotions and tackling underage drinking.

“We will be refreshing our Alcohol Strategy later this year, providing opportunity to further consider the additional actions and steps still needed to tackle alcohol-related harm in Scotland.

“The Scottish Government has invested over £689 million to tackle the problem of alcohol and drug use since 2008, We also confirmed an additional £20m for alcohol and drugs services as part of our Programme for Government this year.”

A SWA spokesman said: “We await the judgment of the Supreme Court, which will mark the end of the five- year legal process. This issue for us has always been about competitiveness of Scotch, particularly in our vital export markets, and ensuring we can continue to support the jobs, investment and communities across Scotland which rely on the industry.

“We believe that the proposed MUP legislation contravenes EU law and WTO rules. Our case has sought clarity in the law.

“The Scotch Whisky industry is the first to acknowledge that promoting responsible drinking and tackling alcohol-related harm is of paramount importance. Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, we will continue to work in partnership with the government and the voluntary sector in order to do this.”

The Scotch Whisky industry supports 40,000 jobs across the UK, employs 10,500 people in Scotland, 7,000 of whom work in rural areas. The SWA’s members include global spirits producers Diageo and brands owned by Pernod Ricard and Suntory Beam.

Viewpoint: ‘Sale of alcohol for less than price of fizzy soft drinks is a scandal’

The journey towards minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland has been a long one, but it is approaching its end.

First brought forward by the then minority SNP government in 2009, the policy was initially defeated at Holyrood. However, the election of 2011 saw both a majority government returned and a change in attitude among opposition parties allowing the life-saving policy to be passed overwhelmingly in 2012.

Despite five long years passing, minimum unit pricing is still not in effect because of irresponsible attempts by the alcohol industry to block the policy in the courts.

This week, doctors and health campaigners hope the Supreme Court will end these challenges and let the policy proceed.

The strength of minimum unit pricing has always rested on the fact that it can achieve what taxation alone does not. The price of alcohol has long been known to be one of the key drivers behind consumption and while tax changes can be absorbed by the industry, minimum pricing by its nature cannot be.

Furthermore, a minimum price per unit of alcohol has been shown to have its greatest impact on reducing the consumption of the heaviest drinkers in society – those who are most at risk of death or serious illness from their use of alcohol.

As doctors, we see the heavy toll that alcohol takes on the health of people in Scotland and the emotional impact on loved ones, who are often left trying to pick up the pieces. The sale of alcohol for less than the cost of fizzy soft drinks is a scandal that must be addressed.

The most recent figures show that 1,265 people in Scotland lost their lives to alcohol-related causes last year.

This is a 10 per cent increase on the previous year and the highest total since 2010.

The cost of alcohol misuse to Scottish society runs into billions of pounds a year, taking into account losses to the economy, and policing costs, as well as a substantial financial impact on health services.

At a time when NHS resources are stretched as never before, we cannot afford to continue the cycle that sees pressure unnecessarily put upon the health service as a result of alcohol misuse.

The case for minimum unit pricing is as urgent

as ever.

For the sake of people across Scotland, I hope it will be implemented as swiftly as possible.

Dr Peter Bennie is chair, BMA Scotland