The 2006 ban on smoking in public places in Scotland is regarded as a major public health triumph of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition then in power at Holyrood.
Setting a minimum price for alcohol is regarded by the SNP as an equivalent measure to tackle alcohol abuse.
Despite cross-party concern about the extensive problems caused by alcohol abuse, the legislation failed in the last Parliament because opposition parties united against it. However, with the introduction of a sunset clause which means the measure will cease to apply after five years if the legislation is shown to be ineffective, the Conservative and LibDem parties at Holyrood now support it. In the face of a growing consensus that minimum pricing is at least worth trying, Labour's continued opposition risks the party being seen to put political gesture above tackling a public health problem. Yesterday, as if to disprove such an assumption, the Labour Party unveiled 14 measures to tackle problem drinking, which they hope to present in a private member's Bill.
The proposals, drawn up by former GP and consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Simpson and Graeme Pearson, former director general of the Serious Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency, merit serious consideration. The most politically controversial is the revival of a defeated Labour amendment to the Alcohol Scotland Bill in 2010 to set a legal limit on the amount of caffeine in pre-mixed alcoholic drinks. Since a limit is in force in Scandinavian countries, however, it should be possible to gain reliable evidence as to its effect. Bottle-tagging (invisible marking which enables police to discover where alcohol was bought) has proved successful in reducing under-age drinking in two pilot schemes and may be appropriate in some areas.
Other constructive ideas such as rehabilitation disposals for offenders with an alcohol problem, however, have significant cost implications and might amount to little more than a wish list in the current economic climate. There is no reason why there should not be cross-party support for closing a loophole in the legislation on bulk-buy promotions, regular reporting on the progress of the public health objectives of the 2005 Licensing Act and establishing a national forum to review licensing laws and devise solutions to problems.
Unless Labour can gain support for this proposed Bill from at least one MSP from one of the other main parties, it cannot be introduced and the good intentions of Dr Simpson and Mr Pearson will remain no more than that. The debate over minimum pricing may have begun as a means of ensuring the most effective legislation but it has descended into political intransigence. One hope for the Scottish Parliament was that it would replace the yah-boo confrontations at Westminster with a constructive consensus. There are few issues which merit that approach more than Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol. All sides should now recognise that price should be one measure in a concerted programme to halt the damage.
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