IN setting 50p as the minimum price per unit of alcohol, the Scottish Government has instituted a radical policy to tackle the problem drinking which is taking an increasing toll on the health of individuals and the wellbeing of communities.
The 50p per unit is 5p higher than the 45p originally proposed to reflect the increase in inflation.This will affect the lowest-priced brands of all types of alcohol but, as we report today, consumers should be alert to producers raising the price of dearer products (which should not be affected) to protect brand differential.
To be effective, a minimum price must be at a level that will have a deterrent effect on those whose prime concern is alcohol intake rather than quality. It should not be so high as to encourage a black market or trips across the Border. Modelling by researchers at Sheffield University has shown that price is crucial to the effect.
On their current estimates, in the first year of operation a minimum price of 50p would result in 60 fewer deaths, 1600 fewer hospital admissions and around 3500 fewer crimes, with the total reduction in harm valued at £64 million. Even if their projections turn out to be over-optimistic, there will be a considerable saving of life and reduction in illness and crime from minimum pricing.
It will continue to be controversial, not least because the immediate effect will be to increase profits for retailers, especially the supermarkets which have used rock-bottom drink prices as loss leaders. This is a valid criticism. However, it ignores the fact that a minimum price which applies to all retailers will help smaller shops to compete with the dominant chains. It is possibile that, in an increasingly competitive market place, supermarkets may reduce the price of food as an alternative way to attract customers. Without the power to impose duty on alcohol or tobacco, the Scottish Government's options are limited but it has found a way for the public purse to gain by introducing a public health levy designed to recoup revenue from big retailers that sell alcohol and tobacco, although how effective this will be is yet to be seen.There remains a question about whether setting a minimum price flouts European competition law. On the evidence of the damage caused by alcohol in Scotland, it would appear that it can be defended as a public health measure.
The Herald has consistently supported minimum pricing as part of an overall strategy to combat damaging patterns of alcohol consumption. The sunset clause in the legislation will require the policy to be re-evalutated after five years and this is an important recognition that price alone cannot change what has become a cultural acceptance of drunkenness. Minimum pricing has been supported by agencies ranging from the police and health bodies to the licensed trade. They must ensure accurate information is gathered to monitor the situation.
The former Labour-LibDem Scottish Executive pioneered the ban on smoking in public places, a controversial public health measure that led the way for other parts of the UK and produced significant health benefits. The SNP Government's minimum pricing legislation could do the same. David Cameron has said he is willing to consider a similar measure in England; there is a strong case for the UK Government following Scotland's example.
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