Delay to minimum pricing cost 400 lives, claims ex-minister

Former health secretary Alex Neil has accused the Scottish Whisky Association of being complicit in the untimely deaths of nearly 400 people because its legal challenge to minimum unit pricing of alcohol delayed the introduction of Scottish Government legislation.

Former health secretary Alex Neil has accused the Scottish Whisky Association of being complicit in the untimely deaths of nearly 400 people because its legal challenge to minimum unit pricing of alcohol delayed the introduction of Scottish Government legislation.

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Mr Neil, speaking at Holyrood as his successor announced 1 May as the day minimum pricing will finally be introduced in Scotland, insisted lives could have been saved had the drinks industry – and the SWA in particular – not prolonged the process by pursuing lengthy litigation.

The former cabinet secretary, who served as minister for health and well-being from 2012 to 2014 when the legislation was first passed, also insisted the Scottish Government should chase every penny of legal costs.

Citing work done on the impact of minimum pricing by academics at Sheffield University which suggested lives could have been saved had the policy been introduced earlier, he called on the industry to recompense and “do more” to help those parts of Scotland devastated by excessive drinking. He said: “As a result of the Scotch Whisky Association’s action over the last five years, based on the estimates of Sheffield University, nearly 400 people in Scotland have died unnecessarily and avoidably as a result of this action.

“Had this legislation been implemented five years ago about 392 people would still have probably been alive. Now, we can’t undo what’s already happened. But can I press the Cabinet Secretary to say to the Scotch Whisky Association that repaying the legal costs is not enough. Given the vast profits they make every year in Scotland, they should be investing heavily in those communities particularly adversely affected by the alcohol abuse problem.

“They owe those communities a lot. After their irresponsible behaviour we should make sure they pay those people as well as our legal costs.”

For their part, the SWA issued a statement that said: “We are committed to tackling alcohol misuse and we have a lot of initiatives in place to invest in communities and we will continue to do so.”

Health Secretary Shona Robison revealed the government is proposing a minimum price of 50p per unit, but left the door open for an increase in the future.

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Ms Robison confirmed her predecessor’s hoped outcome, when she said that the SWA would pay the Scottish Government’s legal costs following its failed court battle. A final figure for costs has yet to be determined but they are estimated to be more than £500,000.

Ms Robison said a consultation on the regulations which will set the minimum unit price will begin next month. An order, setting an implementation date of 1 May next year, will be laid before the Scottish Parliament in March.

“Next May, we take a huge step forwards in tackling one of Scotland’s enduring health harms,” she said.

“Minimum unit pricing of alcohol can help to turn the tide on alcohol harm, and the 1st of May will be a landmark moment.”

The legislation had met with resistance from the SWA, which with support from the European drinks industry argued minimum pricing breached EU and global trade law as it interfered with free trade and open borders regulations.

Last week, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the policy could be introduced after a five-year battle that also saw the policy come before the Court of Session in Edinburgh and the European Court of Justice.

Ms Robison said she would discuss measures that could be adopted by the SWA when she meets its chief executive Karen Betts shortly, including putting medical guidelines on packaging.

The Health Secretary also signalled that a unit price of 50p would not be set in stone. Jackson Carlaw of the Conservatives and Kenny Gibson of the SNP asked if it could be changed with Willie Rennie of the Lib Dems suggesting a 60p minimum unit price.

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Ms Robison said the policy modelling had been based on 50p which was her “preferred” option but would be kept “under review”.

It also emerged Scotland had seen a total of 36,235 hospital admissions for alcohol abuse last year. NHS statistics showed rising numbers of admissions for those with liver disease as well as a divide showing people from poor backgrounds are more likely to require hospital treatment for drink related problems than those from rich areas.

The figures from the NHS’s Information Services Division showed that alcohol related stay rate per 100,000 population in general acute hospitals was 685.2, compared with 673.2 the previous year. The 36,235 admissions related to 24,060 Scots who had at least one admission to hospital for an alcohol related condition.

Of these people 11,777 were admitted for an alcohol-related admission for the first time or not been admitted to hospital in the previous ten years.

Admissions to hospital for alcohol-related liver disease rose for the fourth year.

In 2016/17 there were 140.0 patients admitted with liver disease, a figure that almost reached the peak of 140.1 recorded in 2007/8 and which was the highest recorded since 1997/98. The rate of alcohol-related stays in psychiatric hospitals in 2015/16 is unchanged from previous year (2014/15) at 54.4 per 100,000 population.