Tomorrow the UK Supreme Court will deliver its final judgment on minimum unit pricing – marking the end of a long journey, since the proposal was backed by the Scottish Parliament back in 2012.
It’s no secret that Scotland has a difficult relationship with alcohol. Progress has been made to reduce alcohol-related harm – cutting the drink-drive limit, banning multi-buy offers and irresponsible drinks promotions and tackling underage drinking.
The Scottish Government has invested £689 million to tackle problem alcohol and drug use since 2008, including £600,000 per year to support third sector organisations delivering vital support to children and families across Scotland affected by substance and alcohol misuse. We also confirmed an additional £20 million for alcohol and drugs services as part of our Programme for Government this year.
But still we want to go further.
Recent statistics show alcohol related deaths have increased by 10 per cent over the last year – whilst in all other European countries outside the UK and Ireland they are falling significantly.
On average, alcohol misuse causes about 670 hospital admissions and 24 deaths a week and it costs Scotland £3.6 billion each year, or £900 for every adult.
Last year the four UK Chief Medical Officers published new alcohol guidelines, recommending that both men and women drink no more than 14 units per week. Those 14 units can be bought for just £2.52 – alcohol is being sold for as little as 18p a unit.
Given the clear link between consumption and harm, and evidence that affordability is one of the drivers of increased consumption, addressing price is an important element of any long-term strategy to tackle alcohol misuse.
That’s why I am convinced that minimum unit pricing, as part of a concerted range of measures, would be the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high strength alcohol that does so much damage to our communities. The Scottish Parliament agreed, passing the policy unopposed more than five years ago, and it has the strong backing of those who work daily with the effects of alcohol misuse, and will begin saving lives within months of its introduction.
The latest appeal to the UK Supreme Court is the only remaining stumbling block to minimum unit pricing being introduced – it’s been approved twice in the Scottish courts and the European Court of Justice ruled it is for the national court to make the final decision.
Scotland has very much led the way on this important public health measure, which other countries are also interested in pursuing. Only a few weeks ago my Welsh counterpart, Rebecca Evans, signalled her government’s commitment to minimum pricing, introducing a bill at the Senedd.
Of course, minimum unit pricing is only one of the measures the Scottish Government is implementing to reduce alcohol-related harm. Scotland has a well-regarded alcohol strategy which contains more than 40 measures and it is having an impact.
But if tomorrow’s judgment is the positive outcome we’ve worked for, we will move as quickly as is practicable to put the policy in place.
Shona Robison is Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport