The Losh Cause – New measures that come up short
Proposed new legislation in Scotland aimed at tackling alcohol abuse has sparked huge debate. Chris Losh believes the plans display muddled thinking and fail once again to address the real cultural problems behind alcohol misuse.
One thing the Scots are good at is black humour, but the events of the last month or so must surely be stretching even their tolerance.
Given that Scotland fought so hard for devolution from a London-based parliament, it is a rich irony that the Scottish government has, off its own bat, come up with a scheme that could do enormous damage to Scotch whisky, one of the country's biggest and most visible industries.
Alcohol abuse has been a problem in Scotland for a long time, and the Government there is right to want to tackle the issue. But the proposals that it unveiled this month are not just ineffective - they're damaging to the wrong people.
The most contentious element is the plan to introduce a minimum pricing scheme, based on a figure of GBP0.40 per litre per unit of alcohol. So, a 40% abv litre of whisky would have a minimum price of GBP16; a 70cl bottle GBP11.20; and a normal-sized bottle of 14% abv wine GBP3.92. Given that the current average price of a bottle of whisky in Scotland is GBP10.33, you can imagine what this would do to sales of the national drink. Unsurprisingly the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is fuming.
"A [predicted] 30% reduction in consumption would wipe 7m bottles of Scotch off the Scottish market, which is inconsistent with the claim that the Government does not wish to harm the Scotch Whisky industry," the SWA says.
In fact, the damage to the Scotch industry could well be more severe overseas, given the message that it sends out to often protectionist export markets. The irony that the SWA has spent the last ten years successfully removing trade barriers abroad, only to have sales-harming legislation imposed on it at home, would be hilarious, were it not so painful.
The Scottish government may have reined back on its plans to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 but the ban on flagging up promotions remains, and this too suggests muddled thinking.
Either promotions are a problem or they're not. If they are seen as a serious issue why not ban them altogether (as argued in this column a couple of months back)? If they're not a big deal, leave them alone. Telling retailers that yes, they can price promote but no, they can't tell anyone about it is a fudge that Cadbury's would be proud of. And like all fudges it does the maximum damage while providing the minimum return.
The problems that the Scottish Parliament should be addressing are twofold.
The first is simple. It should, indeed, be illegal to sell drink below cost price. It's utterly irresponsible to sell something with the potential social problems of alcohol as a loss-leader just to drive footfall. This is a retail problem, not a drinks industry one. And the practice should be banned.
The second is much more complicated. The only way to attack Northern Europe's infantile approach to alcohol (and Scotland's in particular, if the figures are to be believed) is through a prolonged, concerted period of education that makes stumbling around showering the world with vomit look somewhat less than cool.
The drinks industry is (albeit belatedly) working with the Government on this, and the accompanying media campaigns are powerful. But they'll take time. It took 25 years for drink driving messages to lodge in the minds of the public; it could well take far longer for people to grow up in their attitude to booze. After all, cars have only been around for 100 years; we've been drinking to excess for centuries. That's a lot of momentum to reverse.
There is, clearly, no silver bullet when it comes to alcohol misuse. If there were, it would have been used long ago.
One thing that's very obviously not an answer, however, is to keep raising duty. It is the solution of a political class that is as intellectually bankrupt as it is cowardly, able only to indulge in gesture politics and lacking the guts to admit that what it's doing isn't working.
The problem is not purely how much is drunk, but how. A wind-down vodka and Coke every night is not going to kill anybody, whereas regularly necking half a bottle on a Friday night stores up myriad social and health problems. Simply raising price, however, does not discriminate between the two, which explains why, despite hefty duty rises over the last ten years, there has been no decrease in drink-related social problems.
Of course, raising duty does discourage people from drinking (The UK Treasury is expected to be GBP1.6bn worse off as a result of lost revenue, while the Oxford Economics Group estimates drink sales will fall 11% over the next year). It's just it doesn't necessarily discourage the right ones. Respectable couples might only drink two bottles of wine a week rather than four. Old ladies might skip their glasses of sherry. But the hard-core alcoholics and binge-drinkers will keep right on, leaving literally everyone worse off.
Watching the Government attempt to fix this is rather like watching a group of men standing round a burning fire, attempting to extinguish it with paraffin. As the flames leap higher, their only solution is, er, more paraffin.
And the drinks industry is getting burned, make no mistake. If you ever wanted proof that drink is persona non grata at the moment, then take a look at the difference in treatment of the car and drinks industries. The former has been bailed out to the tune of GBP2.3bn on the basis that tens of thousands of jobs are at risk. Yet an estimated 70,000 jobs are under threat in the drinks and hospitality industries and the response is tax escalators, duty rises and minimum pricing.
Nobody's expecting a hand-out. But a bit of hands-off might be nice...
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