Focus - Scottish proposals provoke mixed reaction
Legislation being proposed by the Scottish government would, if passed, represent some of the strictest alcohol regulation in the EU, so it's no surprise that it has provoked widespread reaction. Ben Cooper takes a look at what politicians, industry, campaigners, academics and the medical community have been saying about the proposals announced on Monday.
The drinks industry was preparing for the worst on Monday as it awaited the unveiling of the Scottish government's strategy for tackling alcohol-related harm. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) did not disappoint, announcing a raft of measures which would be among the toughest in Europe.
The key plank in the strategy - and undoubtedly the most controversial element - is the setting of mandatory minimum pricing for alcohol, aimed at stopping drink being sold for 'pocket money prices'.
In addition, the Government intends to ban off-sales promotions such as 'three for two' and cut-price offers, and prohibit retailers from selling alcohol as a 'loss leader'; restrict the display and marketing of alcohol products to specified areas in off-sales premises; and introduce a Social Responsibility Fee for some retailers.
The Government has backed down from its original plans to raise the nationwide minimum age for buying alcohol in the off-trade from 18 to 21, but plans to allow local authorities to enforce this in problem areas. Nevertheless, industry representatives have been vociferous in response to the new proposals.
Focusing on the legality of the minimum pricing measure, Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), said "We agree that attitudes to alcohol in Scotland need to change, but minimum pricing is not the answer. It is hard to believe any Scottish Government would bring forward proposals that are likely to be both illegal in international trade law and risk damaging the whisky industry. Regrettably, minimum pricing achieves both and undermines our success in breaking down illegal discrimination against Scotch Whisky around the world."
The SWA said an additional 90p a bottle on today's typical price would "do nothing to support the communities that rely on the industry".
Brewers were also critical of the measures which could put a minimum price on a six-pack of lager of around GBP4.22, with a bottle of wine set at a minimum of GBP3.90; 2 litres of white cider at GBP6.00; a bottle of vodka at GBP10.50; and GBP11.20 for a bottle of whisky.
Describing the measures as "blunt and ineffective", Kristin Wolfe, head of alcohol policy at SABMiller, said: "It is our view and experience that action against alcohol misuse needs to be targeted specifically towards those who do not drink responsibly or legally, rather than all adult consumers. Measures taken should educate consumers, providing them with all the information necessary to make informed decisions about their personal responsibility towards the consumption of alcohol." SABMiller said proposals to levy social responsibility fees on businesses were "unworkable".
Meanwhile, Benet Slay, managing director of Diageo Great Britain, said working to reduce alcohol harm was a "common goal". He said Diageo was "extremely disappointed" that the Government had failed to listen to industry concerns, and was instead progressing with "sensationalist policies rather than following evidence-based ones". Slay said the measures represented "short-term politics making a poor attempt at tackling a serious long-term problem".
The Gin and Vodka Association (GVA) said it believed industry and government should work together in tackling alcohol-related harm.
"We believe that the drinks industry as a whole should work closely with both the UK and the Scottish Governments to help change the cultural attitudes to excessive drinking that affect the minority of the population," said Edwin Atkinson, director general of the GVA. "However, we do not believe that whole population measures are the best way to do so, and are disappointed that the Scottish Government is proposing to adopt this approach."
In contrast to the industry view, the response from alcohol-related charities was, not surprisingly, more positive.
Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "The Framework focuses on proposals which have been shown to work in other countries. Regulating the price and availability of alcohol are the measures most effective in reducing alcohol consumption and related harm to individuals, families and society. Change won't happen overnight. But the combined efforts of Government, health and police services, the alcohol industry, licensed trade and the voluntary sector should ensure significantly fewer Scots' lives are affected by alcohol misuse."
Given that the ban on smoking in public places was first introduced in Scotland, and then later became law throughout the UK, Alcohol Concern, the London-based counterpart to Alcohol Focus, was quick to advocate that the Scottish proposals be applied throughout the UK.
"Today's announcement shows that Scotland is much more realistic about what's needed to significantly reduce alcohol-related harm," said Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern. "While consumption levels are high in Scotland, England and Wales aren't far behind. Similar action is urgently needed in Westminster to stem the rising tide of alcohol-related problems."
In stark contrast to the industry view, Shenker said he believed minimum pricing was "the only effective way" to deter risky and harmful drinkers. "It's a simple fact that the cheaper alcohol is, the more people will drink and the more harm will be done," he said.
However, the Portman Group, the UK's industry-backed social aspects organisation, was critical of the measures. David Poley, Portman Group chief executive, said: "The Scottish Government is not listening to reason. These plans will punish all drinkers while only scratching at the surface of our drinking culture. People who drink to get drunk would not be influenced by these measures. We should be targeting the harmful drinking minority through better education and effective law enforcement. Raising the legal purchase age to 21 is a crazy idea. It is astonishing that some 20 year-old Scots could go to war, smoke and vote but not buy a drink."
Not all industry representatives were entirely critical of the measures, however. Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), welcomed the elements dealing with "irresponsible" promotions in the off-trade. "Not only does the SLTA agree with minimum pricing, it's a view shared by licensed trade leaders from the rest of the UK and Ireland," he said.
Naturally, off-premise retailers took a different view. The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) said the plans would add costs to responsible shoppers without making any difference to irresponsible drinking. The SRC said it made "no sense" to penalise the majority of Scottish drinkers who consume responsibly.
Scottish Retail Consortium director Fiona Moriarty said: "Irresponsible drinking is not about price or availability yet this is the main focus of the Government's approach. We need to develop solutions that educate rather than alienate."
Moriarty said the SRC was "fully committed" to playing its part in tackling alcohol-related harm but said that "poorly thought through legislation" would not change the behaviour of those who abuse alcohol but only penalise "the overwhelming majority of customers who consume alcohol perfectly responsibly".
On minimum pricing, Moriarty pointed out that prices and promotions are broadly the same across the UK but alcohol related deaths are far higher in Scotland, which shows that "Scotland's relationship with alcohol is deep rooted and complex". Moriarty also said arguments about price and alcohol consumption by under-18s were "utterly spurious", suggesting that the issue was about enforcing existing legislation which should prevent under-18s from buying alcohol. She said measures taken by retailers had "substantially cut under-age buying".
The SRC's views were echoed by the UK's Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which branded the proposals "draconian and discriminatory". It said the plans would add dramatic costs and impair the ability of thousands of responsible retailers to trade and provide for their customers.
"Scottish Ministers have devised a suite of restrictions and taxes that have been designed to penalise the off licence industry and they have failed to show what benefit this will have in tackling Scottish alcohol harm," said ACS chief executive James Lowman.
Referring specifically to measures on price and promotions, Lowman added: "Ministers have bulldozed ahead with a determination to impose restrictions on price and promotion in spite of their own inconclusive studies about how effective restrictions will be. Banning multi-buy promotions and in-store advertising, in particular, will hit hardest those smaller businesses that are not able to provide the cheapest prices overall but seek to deliver value through legitimate retail promotions."
However, the measures have been endorsed by academics, the British Medical Association (BMA) and the police.
Dr Peter Terry, chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said: "We particularly welcome its proposals on minimum price and promotions, as evidence shows that the increased affordability of alcohol is driving the damaging levels of consumption in Scotland."
Representing the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, Detective Chief Superintendant John Carnochan said: "Fundamentally, if you want to reduce violence then you need to reduce access to alcohol. We know that the group most at risk from violence is young males aged 10-29, so if you limit access to alcohol in certain areas then it can only be a good thing, especially as it is done with local agreement and is locally relevant."
Meanwhile, Dr Rachel Seabrook of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, told just-drinks: "We are very pleased to see the Scottish government taking the alcohol problem so seriously. There is a considerable body of research showing that measures to raise the price and restrict the availability of alcohol are effective in reducing drink-related harms. We particularly welcome the move to prevent the use of alcohol as a loss leader. We note that the Welsh Assembly have endorsed these measures and hope that the UK government will follow suit."
While the measures have been proposed by the ruling party in the Scottish government, and have already followed an extensive consultation, they remain as yet proposals. And political response suggests the SNP will not find it easy getting the measures through, at least in their current form.
The Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament said that the pricing plans were "horribly flawed", while Labour MSPs called the proposals "an unworkable mess" and were "unsupportable" in their current form, and warned against rushing measures through.
Even before the question of the legality of minimum pricing, and its possible conflict with European and international trade law, has been discussed, it appears the SNP is in for a rough ride.
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