IT was meant to help tackle Scotland's drink problem by banning shops from enticing customers to purchase large amounts of alcohol through "irresponsible" multibuy promotions.
But yesterday it appeared the effect of the new legislation, the Alcohol Bill, has instead been to make booze here the cheapest in the UK, as supermarket shelves were filled with heavily discounted individual bottles and cases of beer.
Businesses are now forbidden from offering cheaper deals to customers who are bulk-buying alcohol under legislation introduced by the Scottish Government, bringing to an end deals such as two for the price of one or three bottles of wine for £10.
But as the new rules took effect it soon became apparent retailers were dodging the crackdown by making single bottles even cheaper than before, in many cases matching what would have been the individual price within a multibuy. Wine which would have been included in the three-for-£10 deal was reduced in price to £3.33 a bottle.
Customers have also been advised by supermarket giant Tesco that discounts on bulk deals can still be accessed by shopping online, as purchases will be dispatched from a warehouse in England.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has insisted the new measures in the Alcohol Bill will be effective in reducing over-consumption and encourage customers to buy less.
However, the dodging of the legislation has also raised concerns that attempts will be made to circumvent efforts in the future to crack down on consumption, such as introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, the national charity which works with policymakers to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, described supermarkets which are cutting the price of alcohol to get round the ban on multibuy offers as “irresponsible”.
She said: “We hope there are some responsible retailers out there who are going to try to begin the process of ending cheap promotions.
“But without minimum unit pricing, it allows retailers simply to reduce the unit price and some are going to do that because what they are interested in is the bottom line.
“These are the kind of irresponsible practices that have got us into the situation in the first place.”
She said action to introduce minimum unit pricing would “make the difference” but added it was likely a bill expected to be introduced in October would be not passed until May next year.
Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said “gaping holes” in the legislation were now being exploited by supermarkets.
“The antics of the supermarkets have demonstrated just how easily they can get round the law by exploiting internet sales,” she said. “I fear exactly the same tactics will be employed by supermarkets and other retailers if minimum unit pricing was to be introduced. We must not forget too that internet sales are a growing market.”
Mary Scanlon, health spokeswoman for the Conservatives, said stores would always try to find a way round legislation as part of competitive retailing.
She also argued that Scotland’s “deep-rooted and complex” relationship with alcohol means individuals will also try to find their way round attempts to crack down on the problem.
“It will be quite easy for people to pop over the Border into England and more than easy for warehouses and dispatch centres to be moved from Scotland to England in order to maintain the price,” she said.
“I think everyone in Scotland knows we have a problem with alcohol, but there is no proof that current measures or minimum price will address that problem.”
Ironically, Richard Dodd, spokesman for the Scottish Retail Consortium, said it may now be cheaper to buy a single bottle or can more cheaply in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.
He said: “If the response to the banning of the multibuy in Scotland has been to reduce the price of the single unit so there is no longer an advantage from buying a larger quantity then it is possible that the price of a single can or bottle is cheaper in Scotland.”
But he denied retailers were being irresponsible and insisted that they were abiding by the law.
“Tackling irresponsible drinking should not be about legislation, it should be about changing the culture and attitudes to alcohol,” he said.
“If the intention was to push up the overall price of alcohol then this legislation does not do that.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government insisted that action which had already been taken to stop irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs would now also apply to the off-sales trade.
He said while there were no talks set up with the supermarket sector to discuss the issue, regular meetings were held with “various interested parties” in the alcohol trade.
“The measures are to stop retailers offering irresponsible promotions and remove any cost-based incentives in bulk-buying alcohol,” he added.
“Internet sales represent only a very small proportion of the alcohol sold in Scotland, but it is an area that we watch closely to see if further action is necessary.”