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Minimum Unit Alcohol Pricing

By Ryan McCuaig


Today the UK Supreme Court found in favour of the Scottish Government and unanimously rejected achallenge by the Scotch Whisky Association to The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012. The Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament with the intention to set a minimum sale price per unit of alcohol in Scotland. It is hoped that this will reduce accessibility to cheap, high-strength alcohol which causes most harm in society.
Research by the University of Sheffield has shown that this policy would result in an estimated 81 per cent reduction in premature deaths attributed to alcohol. The Scottish Government’s own estimates say that alcohol-related deaths would fall by 120 per year, with alcohol-related hospital admissions reducing by 2000 per year, by year 20 of the policy.
The Scottish Government’s motivation has been clear from the outset – this measure could have significant benefits to public health. With figures showing that it is possible to exceed the 14 units per week alcohol consumption guideline for just £3, and National Records of Scotland stats confirming that there were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in Scotland in 2016, it is clear that the affordability of alcohol is a major contributing factor to health and societal damage, particularly amongst problem-drinkers. It is in the deprived communities of Scotland where this devastation is most obvious. Rates for alcohol-related hospital stays are 8 times higher for people living in the most deprived areas of Scotland, compared with those in the least deprived areas.
Facts and figures don’t do justice to the stories of hundreds of families across Scotland whose lives are torn apart by alcohol abuse. I grew up in Easterhouse, in the east-end of Glasgow, where problem-drinking is rife. My own Mother was an alcoholic. She drank cheap vodka and cheap cider – types of alcohol that would likely have been unaffordable to her with minimum unit pricing – every day. Problem-drinking meant that before the age of six I had experienced family break-up, social work intervention, the children’s panel, and ultimately, the death of my Mother. There are hundreds of children across Scotland who are facing similar issues every day – and it is high time that the Scottish Government was allowed to protect these families.
The Supreme Court case turned on whether Minimum Unit Pricing was a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. The Scotch Whisky Association claimed that Minimum Pricing was a disproportionate restriction on trade and therefore in breach of Article 34 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union. Acts of the Scottish Parliament which are found to breach European Union law would be outwith competence and therefore ‘not law’. The industry argued that a flat tax on alcohol would be a more proportionate measure of achieving the Government’s aims – something not currently within the power of the Scottish Parliament to enact.
The Scottish Government accepted that Minimum Unit Pricing would restrict trade within the EU. However, they sought to justify that interference on the grounds that the measure strike at ‘alcohol misuse and overconsumption manifesting themselves… in the health and social problems suffered by those in poverty in deprived communities’ [20] – [28]. In the end, the Scottish Government’s argument was preferred, and the measure was held to be proportionate and therefore not in breach of EU Law.
The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Scottish Government should be commended for their steadfast determination in seeing this policy implemented despite years of opposition from the drinks industry. It is disappointing however that the implementation of this legislation has been delayed for five years after it was approved by the Scottish Parliament – who knows how much damage has been caused in the intervening period.
This decision is welcome news and a clear vindication of the Scottish Government’s position on Minimum Pricing. Public health should always be the paramount concern for any government and I am proud that Scotland will now be the first country in the world to implement aMinimum Pricing policy. This progressive and pioneering approach to Government and dedication to the people of Scotland shows why the SNP are now in their third successive term in government.