Scottish government targets binge drinking culture with radical pricing plans

MINISTERS today announced plans to set a minimum price for alcohol in a bid to stop drink being sold for "pocket money prices".

Cut price offers encouraging bulk buying are also to be banned along with money saving promotions like "3 for 2" deals.

The display and marketing of drink is to be restricted to specific areas within off sales premises.

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• Online poll: What do you think of the Scottish government's crackdown on alcohol pricing?

And Scottish ministers plan to create legal powers to introduce a "social responsibility fee" for some retailers.

The plans were revealed when the Scottish Government published its blueprint for tackling the problem of binge drinking in Scotland, especially among the young.

The crackdown was launched at Glasgow Royal Infirmary by the Health Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon and the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.

Plans to raise the minimum age for buying drink in off-sales to 21 have been watered down.

Instead ministers plan to put a legal obligation on licensing boards to "consider" whether drink problems in their area are warrant raising the age to 21.

And local Chief Constables will also be able to request such a move.

Also dropped from the original proposals is a plan to introduce alcohol only checkouts in supermarkets and shops.

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The Government said this had been opposed particularly from small retailers who lacked the floor space and staff.

"We have listened to these concerns and decided for the time being not to introduce alcohol only checkouts", said the Government blueprint.

But it warned that if retailers did not co-operate with plans to curb "irresponsible" promotions, the Government might think again.

The location of the launch was chosen to underline the 2.25 billion price tag which alcohol misuse is calculated to carry.

Ms Sturgeon said: "Plummeting prices and aggressive promotion have led to a surge in consumption, causing and adding to health problems ranging from liver and heart diseases to diabetes, obesity, dementia and cancers.

"We have listened to those who responded to the consultation and modified our proposals where appropriate.

"But we remain determined to press ahead with tough policies to tackle alcohol misuse.

"The time has come for serious action. It is not longer an option for any one to simply talk about the problem of alcohol misuse by shy away from the action needed to tackle it."

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The new measures were outlined days after figures revealed the number of cases where people are treated in hospital for alcohol-related conditions had reached a record high.

NHS statistics published last week showed there were 42,430 drink-related discharges from general hospitals in 2007/8.

And last month it emerged Scotland has the eighth-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world.

Sales figures showed nearly 50 million litres of pure alcohol were drunk in 2007 – the equivalent of 11.8 litres for every person aged over 16.

That is the equivalent of everyone over 16 drinking 570 pints of normal strength beer, or 125 bottles of wine or 42 bottles of vodka.

At the same time researchers found that almost 1,500 Scots are dying every year because of drink.

Ms Sturgeon said the scale of the country's alcohol misuse is "shocking".

But the health secretary insisted the measures they had put forward are "bolder than anything seen before in Scotland".

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While ministers are to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol, the level this will be set at has yet to be fixed.

However a study carried out in the University of Sheffield showed that a minimum price of 40p per unit caused overall consumption to fall by 2.6%, with larger decreases amongst young drinkers and excessive drinkers.

The research – which used data for England – showed that the minimum price resulted in 40,000 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions each year.

The Scottish Government has commissioned similar Scotland-specific data.

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill stressed the importance of tackling pricing and said: "Cheap, readily available alcohol is fuelling violent crime and anti-social behaviour, as well as taking its toll on our economy and health service.

"That's why we are taking action to ban irresponsible promotions and make sure alcohol is sold at a sensible price that reflects the strength of the product.

"I believe this is the right package of measures to make a real difference and change Scotland's relationship with the bottle for the better."

And Dr Harry Burns, chief medical officer for Scotland, said alcohol had become a "major health, economic and social challenge for our people, a problem which is damaging families and communities across the country".

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He added: "We have a responsibility to do all we can to tackle it. In Scotland we led the way on smoking and we can lead the way on alcohol misuse too."

The Portman Group, the social responsibility body for UK drinks producers, criticised the Scottish Government's plans to tackle alcohol misuse.

David Poley, Portman Group chief executive, said: "The Scottish Government is not listening to reason. These plans will punish all drinkers while only scratching at the surface of our drinking culture.

"People who drink to get drunk would not be influenced by these measures.

"We should be targeting the harmful drinking minority through better education and effective law enforcement.

"Many people will make healthier choices if they receive accurate information and support."

Fiona Moriarty, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, was also critical.

"Irresponsible drinking is not about price or availability yet this is the main focus of the Government's approach," she said.

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"We need to develop solutions that educate rather than alienate and instead the Government has retreated to its bunker and is neither listening to the evidence presented or willing to tackle these issues in a consensual manner."

She added: "Prices and promotions are broadly the same across the UK but alcohol-related deaths are far higher in Scotland than England, which clearly shows Scotland's relationship with alcohol is deep-rooted and complex.

"At a time when customers' finances are under severe pressure it's incredible that the Scottish Government believes voters will thank them for using the force of law to push up prices."

Labour's justice spokesman Richard Baker said the plans are "inadequate, unfair and unworkable".

He added: "This is a serious issue that we must tackle effectively and that is why the SNP must start listening to other parties."

The measures that require legislation to implement them will be included in the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill.

But Mr Baker said the sheer size of this will make it "almost impossible for Parliament to effectively scrutinise" the proposal.

"Kenny MacAskill has had two years to deliver his alcohol and criminal justice strategy and despite delay after delay and rethink after rethink Scotland is left with an unworkable mess," he said.

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However doctors and police leaders backed the Scottish Government.

Dr Peter Terry, chair of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said: "Alcohol misuse costs the NHS more than 1 million every day and the human cost is far greater.

"The BMA fully supports a wide-ranging strategy that tackles price and availability, which we consider are key to successfully addressing this problem.

"We particularly welcome its proposals on minimum price and promotions, as evidence shows that the increased affordability of alcohol is driving the damaging levels of consumption in Scotland."

Detective chief superintendent John Carnochan, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and head of the Scotland-wide Violence Reduction Unit, said: "Alcohol has cost Scotland dearly.

"Through its significant contribution to violence, it has placed an immense financial burden on this country.

"But there are hidden costs – those to communities, relationships and lives that could have been better lived.

"As a country we should no longer be prepared to accept that price. Any measures that help reduce that cost are to be welcomed.

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"Fundamentally, if you want to reduce violence then you need to reduce access to alcohol."

Jack Law, chief executive of campaign group Alcohol Focus Scotland, said the measures showed that "the Scottish Government is leading the way in the world and taking seriously the need to address our harmful drinking culture".

He added: "Regulating the price and availability of alcohol are the measures most effective in reducing alcohol consumption and related harm to individuals, families and society."

Tory deputy leader Murdo Fraser welcomed the Scottish Government's abandonment of "its ludicrous plans" to raise the age at which alcohol can be bought in off-sales to 21.

"This is a victory for common sense," he said.

While there are elements of the framework Mr Fraser's party agreed with, there are other factors – such as minimum pricing – which should be "comprehensively shelved", he said.

"Under the SNP's proposals the price of Buckfast would be down 30%, Bacardi Breezers by 60%, WKD by 64% and Smirnoff Ice by 52%.

"At a time when we are learning nearly half of young men charged with an offence in 2007 revealed they had been drinking Buckfast immediately prior to committing that offence, making it cheaper to purchase would send completely the wrong message."

And Mr Fraser added: "As it currently stands, the minimum pricing plan is horribly flawed.

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"Instead we should target problem drinks and problem drinkers and we should make our existing laws work better."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Ross Finnie said: "The Government is wrong to think that it can avoid responsibility for this ludicrous plan by shunting it to local authorities."

Ministers had failed to keep their election pledge to get rid of student debt, Mr Finnie said.

"Why is it that this Government dumps the promises that really matter to Scotland's students and young people at the drop of a hat but clings on to plans that demonise them all as irresponsible drinkers?"

• In The Scotsman today: Alcohol crackdown to be unveiled amid protests on all sides