It would be unfortunate if opposition by Cabinet ministers killed off the proposals to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and Wales.
But it should not deter the Scottish Government from implementing the legislation passed in the Scottish Parliament last year which set a minimum price of 50p. In an ideal world, the same lowest legal cost would apply across the UK to make the policy most effective and prevent black market trips across the Border. Nevertheless, Scotland led the way on introducing a ban on smoking in public places, which was controversial at the time, and there is no reason why it should not do the same with the price of alcohol for similar public health reasons.
The Herald welcomed the Prime Minister's personal support for minimum pricing south of the Border last year. Despite high-level opposition, Mr Cameron telling MPs that sales of 20p cans of lager had to change was an acknowledgement that alcohol sold at rock bottom prices was a problem. The arguments that now divide the House of Commons have been well-rehearsed in Scotland. They can be reduced to whether setting a minimum price would help to reduce the increasing number of premature deaths caused by over consumption, and cut down alcohol-fuelled violence sufficiently to outweigh the penalty paid by responsible moderate drinkers in increased costs. The evidence points to minimum pricing producing the greater good. Whether Scotland will achieve the estimated £64 million of total harm reduction in the first year of operation remains to be seen but even if this is over-optimistic, the lives saved and the reduction in illness and crime will be considerable.
The controversy over minimum pricing, including concerns that it would result in increased profits for supermarkets, prompted the Scottish Government to introduce a sunset clause to the legislation, which requires the policy to be re-evaluated after five years. MPs who support minimum pricing in England and Wales should propose a similar clause as the most positive answer to those who say there is insufficient evidence on its effects.
Despite the legislation being passed with cross-party backing at Holyrood following the introduction of the sunset clause, it is facing legal challenges from the Scotch Whisky Association and wine-producing countries in the EU which claim that it breaches community law on free trade. In general, minimum pricing tends to act against the interests of consumers but that is outweighed when it is imposed for a public health benefit.
The Herald has consistently supported minimum pricing as part of a larger overall strategy to reduce alcohol abuse. It is more likely to be effective in changing the damaging patterns of consumption which cause serious harm across the UK if Westminster follows Scotland's lead in putting public health benefit above the lobbying of the drinks industry.
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