Two of my meetings this week have focussed on the proposals on minimum pricing of alcohol in the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill that is being debated in the Scottish Parliament. On Tuesday UNISON’s Scottish Committee had a debate on the issue followed by last night’s Socialist Health Association Scotland AGM.
Common ground in both discussions was recognition that Scotland’s love affair with the bottle had to be tackled and radical measures are needed. 42,000 hospital discharges last year due to alcohol; a contributory factor in 1 in 20 deaths; and the fastest growing rates of liver disease and cirrhosis in the world. Half of all prisoners in Scotland’s overcrowded jails were drunk when they committed their offence.
The question is will minimum pricing protect and improve public health by reducing alcohol consumption, particularly for those most at risk?
Most health professionals at both meetings could describe the social and health consequences of alcohol abuse very clearly. They felt that the Government’s proposals are at least worth a try. Studies conducted overseas show that there is a clear link between price and consumption. Plus minimum pricing targets the cheap alcohol that tends to be bought by harmful drinkers.
Others were more sceptical, including social workers who are concerned that harmful drinker’s habits are not price sensitive and they would simply raid more of the family budget with the obvious consequences. Others argued that minimum pricing simply lines the profits of the supermarkets. There are also concerns about the impact on the Scotch whisky industry from copycat actions abroad and a question mark over the legal competence.
SHA Scotland whilst sceptical that minimum pricing will work took the view it was the only practical option on the table. They would prefer to include taxation in the mix and find a way of getting the income raised back into public services. They also welcomed the Scottish Labour initiative in establishing a Commission to look at alternatives.
UNISON Scotland’s evidence to the Health Committee argues that we should consider more radical solutions. The key issue is the availability of alcohol of which price is only part. If we adopted the Scandinavian model of state monopolies in the sale of alcohol we could enforce responsible sales policies and sensible pricing. This would promote a healthy drinking culture, rather than retailers trying to persuade customers to buy as much as possible.
Radical certainly and politically difficult, but given the scale of the problem half measures (pun intended) are not good enough.