Raft of new booze rules but pricing bid collapses

A RAFT of new restrictions on the sale of alcohol have been passed by the Scottish Parliament in a comprehensive shake-up of licensing laws designed to tackle the country's binge-drinking culture.

• The SNP got nearly all of its proposals through parliament, including the outlawing of popular promotions such as 'six for the price of four', but plans for a minimum price per unit of alcohol were thrown out. Picture: PA

MSPs voted to outlaw discount drink offers and to introduce a new levy forcing pubs, off-licences and supermarkets to pay for the cost of cleaning up alcohol-related harm.

Tougher rules on proof of age were also voted through.

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But after Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives torpedoed the SNP government's plan for a 45p per unit minimum price on all wine, spirits and beer, alcohol experts said the reforms would fail to cut the social cost of alcohol in Scotland.

Pressure is now mounting for further action to increase the price of cheap, high-strength drinks such as cider and vodka, with Chancellor George Osborne facing calls to increase duty across the whole of the UK.

One alcohol expert said that "the recession will do what legislation has failed to do", with evidence emerging that drinkers are cutting their consumption as household budgets fall.

SNP health secretary Nicola Sturgeon led a fierce attack on opponents of minimum pricing yesterday, accusing Labour of "pathetic" party politicking on the issue, and saying the party should be "ashamed" for opposing the plan.

But opponents received backing from Scotland's whisky industry, which had warned that a minimum price would have damaged one of the countries' key industries, while failing to make any genuine inroads into problem drinking.

The Alcohol Bill, passed by MSPs yesterday evening, will ban off-licences and supermarkets from offering discounted deals such as "six cans for the price of four" or "three bottles of wine for 10". The ban will come into effect in the spring.

• Analysis: Scotland shows the way in linking prices and problem drinking

• Scots drink 23 units a week

Local authorities will have the power to impose a Social Responsibility Levy, billing pubs, supermarkets or off-licences for the cost of policing or health costs related to drink.

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Sellers of alcohol must also now ask for age verification from customers if they look 25 or younger. And they will be barred from advertising alcohol near their premises.

However, all of the measures were overshadowed by the SNP's failure to pass a minimum price on alcohol, despite three years of lobbying.

The 45p per unit minimum price on all drink would have more than doubled the price of some cheap high-strength drinks. But ministers failed to convince their political opponents that it would be workable. Only the Greens and Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm supported the move.Labour's health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, said: "It is untried and untested, possibly illegal and will put 140 million in the pockets of supermarkets."

She was backed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, denying the SNP a parliamentary majority.

In a furious tirade against Labour, Ms Sturgeon accused them of knocking back minimum pricing for political reasons. She said: "It is pathetic and Labour, a party with a proud record on public health, should be deeply ashamed of itself."

In heated scenes, Labour MSPs hit back, accusing her of an "irresponsible" approach to the whole debate.

One of the country's foremost researchers on alcohol, Ken Barrie, senior lecturer in alcohol studies at the University of the West of Scotland, said: "I think the decision to drop minimum pricing is a missed chance. The remaining elements in this bill are modest innovations and to some extent these kind of things only work if you have got pricing right. Minimum pricing does tend to go for heavier drinkers who tend to go for cheaper drinks. Without minimum pricing, I don't think we will see that much impact as a result of this Alcohol Bill."

But he added: "What we might find is that economic policy is becoming health policy. People will drink less, because their disposable income is reduced or squeezed."

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Reaction was sharply divided on the dumping of minimum pricing.

Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said: "I am frustrated and disappointed that the debate on such a serious health issue has been polarised and that many opposition MSPs had made their minds up before even considering the evidence."

Dr Bruce Ritson, chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems said: "It is very sad that the opposition parties combined to vote out minimum unit pricing. It is well known that price is the single most important driver of alcohol misuse."

However, Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: "The Scottish Parliament is to be congratulated. MSPs have looked carefully at the evidence rather than listening to the rhetoric on minimum pricing."

Simon Litherland, managing director of Diageo Great Britain, added: "We firmly believed minimum pricing was not an effective solution in tackling alcohol misuse."