• New rules in Scotland mean end for UK as single market
  • Minimum pricing to face legal challenge
  • UK health minister praises responsibility deal with industry
WSTA CEO Jeremy Beadles speaking at todays conference

WSTA CEO Jeremy Beadles speaking at today's conference

The CEO of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association has said that the drinks industry must adapt to life in a divided UK market, as Scotland prepares to introduce tougher rules on alcohol sales.

New restrictions on selling alcohol in Scotland will cause confusion for drinks companies and consumers, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). Addressing the trade body's annual conference today (14 September), Jeremy Beadles said: "We are seeing the break-up of the UK as a single market to trade in."  

From 1 October, Scotland will ban all price promotions on alcohol as part of a range of measures designed to tackle alcohol abuse. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), meanwhile, intends to go further by introducing a minimum price on drinks, possibly at around GBP0.5 per alcohol unit.

Having secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP is expected to drive through its minimum pricing agenda. However, Beadles believes that legal hurdles still lie in wait for the policy. "There are a whole range of legal opinions that what they are doing is illegal," he said. "It's likely at some point that someone will challenge it."

Even so, the WSTA is preparing the industry for the worst. It is thought possible that the SNP may seek to implement the policy even with a legal challenge pending. Any challenge must come from a company, not a trade body, and the challenger will have to argue that the policy has materially-damaged its business.

It remains unclear how the Scottish authorities intend to regulate internet sales of drinks or stop consumers from travelling south of the border to pick up alcohol on promotion in England. Many in the trade suspect that this is the achilles heel of SNP policy.

There is, as yet, no appetite among politicians for minimum pricing or a ban on promotions in England, according to the UK Government's health minister, Andrew Lansley. Speaking to the WSTA conference, Lansley said: "I don't think we're in a position to actually see what the behavioural response to minimum price alcohol policy would be." He also warned that minimum pricing would hit the lowest earners hardest. 

In a largely conciliatory speech to delegates, Lansley thanked the drinks industry for supporting the 'responsibility deal' on alcohol. Launched this year, the deal has seen 110 companies sign up to a series of pledges around selling and marketing drinks more responsibly.

Even though 9m UK adults regularly drink more than is recommended by the Government, Lansley said that "our starting point should always be voluntary action". He criticised the previous administration for reaching too readily for regulation.

Beadles followed Lansley's lead by calling on drinks producers and retailers to show more initiative within the responsibility deal. "Bringing forward new individual pledges is vital," he told delegates, referencing Diageo's decision to fund training for midwives earlier this year.

He also said that, instead of explicitly calling on consumers to drink less, companies could make a significant contribution by lowering the alcohol content of their drinks. Earlier this year, Heineken said that it would take 100m alcohol units out of the UK market every year by lowering the strength of its Strongbow cider brand from 5.3% abv to 4.3% by 2013.