Willie Rennie MSP writes: Time for radical action on alcohol misuse in Scotland

Alcohol misuse continues to blight the whole of Scottish society, wrecking individual lives and harming families and communities. I have seen and heard the impact when I am talking to people on doorsteps. From damaging public health, through crime in local neighbourhoods, to dependence pulling families apart, we all suffer. I believe that radical action is needed and will therefore support moves to introduce a minimum unit pricing mechanism in Scotland.

​There is no quick fix to Scotland’s alcohol problem. The scale and complexity of the challenge requires a fundamental change to our culture of drinking to excess. Over the last few years we have seen significant changes to licensing law and many positive new powers have been put in place. A Licensing Act came into force in 2009, banning happy hours and irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs. More recently the 2010 Alcohol Act bans multi-buy promotions in shops and supermarkets, restricts promotional material on display in shops and requires all retailers to operate the ‘Challenge 25’ scheme to tackle underage sales.

​Even since the Alcohol Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament last November, there have also been a number of developments on alcohol pricing at a UK level. Later this year the Treasury will introduce a new additional duty on super-strength lagers. This follows on from its change made to deter abuse of the strong ciders which are strongly associated with health problems and antisocial behaviour. In January the UK Government announced that it will also ban retailers from selling alcohol below the cost of duty plus VAT. The introduction of this floor price in England will form an important first step for tackling deep discounting and the sale of alcohol below cost price.

​While these welcome changes to the duty, levied on the drinks that cause the most problems, will apply across the UK, plans for a ban on below cost selling will apply south of the border only. The SNP has made it clear that this floor price is not one they will introduce in Scotland. Instead the majority SNP Government has set out its plans to reintroduce a Minimum Pricing Bill as a priority and build a coalition of support for this in Parliament. We have always acknowledged the causal link between price and alcohol consumption. In reassessing our position we also noted the recent Home Office review of alcohol pricing concluded that it “is not possible to determine which alcohol pricing policies may be the most effective” at reducing alcohol-related harm. In the light of this and what I have seen and heard of the terrible toll of alcohol, I believe that the time is right for this new mechanism in Scotland. I will support the introduction of minimum unit pricing in Scotland and wish to work constructively with the SNP Government to make the forthcoming legislation the best it can be. I intend to seek the support of party members at the next Scottish Liberal Democrat party conference to secure that change.

​Minimum pricing will not be the whole answer to Scotland’s alcohol problem. Indeed we will need to monitor the policy closely to measure its effects on public health and alcohol related crime. There must also be stringent enforcement of current alcohol law, ending the shockingly low rates of prosecution for selling alcohol to drunk people and underage young people. Licensing Boards must make full use of their substantial – but under-used – powers to tackle problem drinking locally and crack down on retailers that flout the law. To break the inter-generational paths to addiction, we need to focus early intervention measures on families with complex needs and parents with drinking problems. We also need to make it easier for problem drinkers to access treatment and support; this is still far too difficult in some areas of Scotland.

​Understanding the root of Scotland’s alcohol problem is as important as the effective implementation of legislation. Ultimately we must focus on tackling the root causes of why people, across all socio-economic backgrounds, continue to drink too much. This will require broad action across society. Minimum pricing should be part of that action.

Willie Rennie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid Scotland and Fife and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

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12 Comments

  • That’s a hell of a U-turn.

    Better late than never, I suppose, but I doubt you’ll get much credit for arriving at the correct answer only after your opinion had ceased to matter.

  • You know, I’m actually REALLY ANGRY about this.

    The Lib Dems could have allowed the SNP to introduce minimum pricing ages ago. WHY DID THEY REFUSE TO DO THE RIGHT THING THEN? Political games? It seems like it. Politics and seeing another party fail to get it’s policies through appears to have been more important to them than public health, that’s what it looks like to me anyway. DISGUSTING!

  • I believe that radical action is needed and will therefore support moves to introduce a minimum unit pricing mechanism in Scotland.

    A quick fix, eh?

    Although a close relative of mine was a heavy and abusive alcoholic, unlike the Scottish LibDems it seems, I continue to object to this. Because, amongst other reasons, I know a hardcore drinker aint going to be put off by pricing, and will simply neglect other areas of their life to finance their habit.

    Floating an idea, why not increase tariffs on all alcohol products so they’re affected similarly as a bottle of White Star? The prospect of a bottle of plonk for middle-class Calvinistic moralizers spiking in price might focus minds.

    ~alec

  • It’s bad enough that the SNP proposals are essentially cosmetic and will not address the underlying issues (has anyone looked at the availability of drugs as an alternative to alcohol, btw?) but to go from a perfectly reasonable manifesto statement to backing Eck’s populist approach is weird.

    We will reduce the ill health and crime caused by excessive drinking. We support a ban on below-cost selling. Scottish alcohol laws have been comprehensively changed in the last few years and Liberal Democrats want these new laws strongly enforced. We will also review the complex, ill-thought-through system of taxation for alcohol to ensure it effectively tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers and important local industries.

    The Scottish parliament needs opposition, the SNP have a majority without the oversight that you get in Westminster, so the potential to massively abuse this power is huge. I’d hope that all the opposition parties would robustly scrutinise the SNP at all levels, not cravenly capitulate. I suppose it’s up to Labour and the Tories now…

  • Punishing the poor and the majority of responsible drinkers is hardly the liberal approach.

  • Sorry Willie, but on this one I think you’re wrong.

    There’s a number of reasons why I’m opposed. Firstly, will it actually work? Take the middle-class alcoholic (though he’d not admit it) for whom a whisky or glass of wine after work has become a “crutch”, as Tony Blair once put it. Will a price rise affect him? Most likely not – he’ll either already buy products above the price limit anyway, or will simply absorb it into his monthly spending.

    What about the real, hardened addicted drinkers at the other end of the social scale? History suggests that when the price of drugs go up, it doesn’t actually force addicts to turn round and question what they’re spending the money on. Instead, they take it from their other expenditures, the addiction forcing them to find a way of getting alcohol. So that means maybe that the kids get one meal a day instead of two, or that their new school uniform is forgone in place of a few bottles of White Lightning. Without support, and without being able to admit suffering, these people will simply become worse off again under this proposal.

    And that’s the crux. An increase in duty, or a tax otherwise implemented by Westminster, could be allocated to direct help for alcohol problems. That I would support. But instead, the increased profits from the sale of alcohol won’t go to help those who suffer from its effect – it will go straight into the profits of the drinks companies and their shareholders’ dividends.

    You do make a good point that there is already much legislation in place which needs to be better enforced. So why not do that first? What is it about the legislation around test sales which allows big companies’ lawyers to wriggle their clients out of a suspension or withdrawal of licence? Why not spend some time sorting this out and trying what we’ve got?

    If this policy is to be implemented, then there needs to be a discussion with the drinks companies on these excess profits which will be created. If there’s a way, even through a voluntary agreement, whereby the extra profit raised can be used by the Scottish Government for a clear plan to combat alcohol abuse, then I might be able to support this. Without it, though, we will end up with a situation where responsible drinkers are penalised unfairly, and many problem drinkers are in a worse position with less support.

  • socialiberal 6th Jun '11 - 5:09pm

    Excellent move Willie and a refreshing repudiation of the siren libertarian voices who translate ‘liberal’ to mean a free for all for the more exploitative of commercial interests. Minimum pricing is good liberal policy in our times; rejecting the stupidty of a right to mega-cheap booze in favour of a right to live in communities not blighted by alcohol harm. Liberals though rightly wary of government intervention should regulate moderately to ensure that individuals have half a chance to make healthy choices. This is just such a move.

  • The Lib Dems should be committed to evidence-based policy and that can also mean experimenting with policy.

    I’m happy to see Scotland taking this step, partly because it can help inform English policy. Will it have a noticeable effect? Will it have any unwanted side-effects such as an increase in the price of more expensive drinks, or displacement towards other drugs? The best way to find out is to try it.

  • More votes down the drain in Scotland.

  • Indeed, Adam, and we should note there is evidence to support this policy. Studies have been carried out.

  • It is good to see measures to deal with the scourge of alcohol.
    Please remember
    http://www.bntl.org/who.html

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