Is a minimum alcohol price now more likely?

The issus of alcohol abuse and minimum pricing for alcohol are back in the news after figures revealed Scots drink 20% more alcohol than the rest of the UK.

News over the weekend that Scots drink 20 per cent more alcohol than the rest of Britain – equating to the average Scot consuming 540 pints of beer, 46 bottle of Vodka or 130 bottles of wine a year – has once again re-ignited debate over the SNP Governmnet’s plans for a minimum alcohol price, within its Alcohol Bill, currently going through Parliament.

The figures come just days after research by the University of York found that alcohol abuse and its consequences cost Scotland between £2.48 billion and £4.64 billion, equating to costs of roughly £900 per person in Scotland.

Responding to these figures, Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon used the developments to make the case for minimum pricing. She said:

“All the evidence tells us the big rise in Scottish consumption in recent decades is closely linked with the 70 per cent drop in relative cost. Currently there is nothing to stop supermarkets selling alcohol more cheaply than bottled water and that’s why it’s possible to exceed the weekly guidelines for a man for less than £3.50.

“We believe setting a minimum price for alcohol, while not the whole answer, is a key weapon in the battle against alcohol misuse.”

For Scottish Labour, however, Shadow Health Secretary Jackie Baillie reiterated Labour’s opposition to minimum pricing as the best option for tackling alcohol abuse, saying:

“I believe that alcohol abuse is the most important public health issue we face in Scotland today. We need to consider radical measures to reduce the level of problem drinking but minimum unit pricing is not the answer.

“The truth is that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are promoting a scheme that will increase the profits of the supermarkets, but won’t provide a single penny for more police officers or alcohol treatment. The challenge now is for us to come up with something better. That is why we have created a commission under the chairmanship of Professor Sally Brown to consider ways of restricting cheap booze and tackling alcohol abuse.

“I am inviting the Scottish Government to engage in the debate about alternative pricing mechanisms and other measures, such as alcohol treatment and testing orders and a mandatory Challenge 25 scheme.”

Ms Baillie’s statement, however, masks a possible shift in Labour’s policy on minimum pricing for alcohol UK wide. Last week, the House of Commons Health Select Committee, a majority of whose members are Labour MP’s, published its report on Alcohol in which it came out in favour of minimum pricing. It said:

Increasing the price of alcohol is the most powerful tool at the disposal of a government. The key argument made by the drinks industry and others opposed to a rise in price is that it would be unfair on moderate drinkers. We do not think this is a serious argument.”

Commenting on the government’s less than enthusiastic response in March last year to a recommendation by the Chief Medical Officer for England in his most recent annual report for a minimum price, the Select Committee made clear:

“It is time the government listened more to the Chief Medical Officer and the President of the Royal College of Physicians and less to the drinks and retail industry. If everyone drank responsibly the alcohol industry might lose about 40 per cent of its sales and some estimates are higher.

“In formulating its alcohol strategy the government must be more sceptical about the industry’s claims that it is in favour of responsible drinking.”

In December, Left Foot Forward assessed the views of the various Governments across the country towards a minimum price for alcohol, which found Whitehall cool on the idea. However, such hostility could now be budging.

Speaking following the Select Committee’s report, Health Secretary Andy Burnahm indicated that Labour might be prepared to look at the issue of cheep booze. He said:

“We need to balance the rights of people who drink responsibly with those who buy ludicrously cheap booze and cause harm.”

Whilst the Daily Mail reported that Gordon Brown had rebuked Mr Burnham for his comments, Downing Street has left room open for such a move at a later date, indicating that such a move would not be “sensible” at this stage.

On Wednesday, The Telegraph reported that tackling alcohol abuse would form a major part of Labour’s manifesto, suggesting that the Government would set the minimum price for alcoholic drinks in an effort to combat heavily discounted drinks promotions.

On the same day, the Conservatives unveiled their proposals for an improved labelling system for alcohol to better assist people in making informed choices on their drinking habits.

Similarly, during the recent Welsh Labour leadership contest, Edwina Hart, who currently continues in her position as Health Minister, suggested that there might be a need to break the link between price and alcohol consumption. She said:

“We also have to look at licensing laws – where we sell it [alcohol], how obtainable it is, how we sell alcohol and how cheap it is and we need to take some strong lines on this if we are going to stamp out some of the anti-social behaviour problems.”

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.