A delay in bringing in a key policy aimed at tackling Scotland's problem with alcohol is costing lives, leading experts have warned.
The introduction of a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol had been due to be introduced a year ago today. However, the measure has yet to come into force as a result of a legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
Writing in The Herald today, 22 doctors, academics and charity leaders from across the UK have appealed to the association to stop fighting the introduction of minimum pricing. The experts compare the SWA's tactics to those utilised by the tobacco industry and say the organisation is ignoring the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament.
However, the SWA shows little sign of backing down. It said introducing a minimum price would be illegal, would be ineffective in tackling problem drinkers, would penalise the majority of the population and that the policy was not supported by concrete evidence.
Among the signatories to the letter calling for the association to give up are the chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, the chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland, a former chief medical officer for Scotland and the chief executive of the British Liver Trust.
They state alcohol remains a "huge health and social problem" in Scotland and that getting rid of "ultra-cheap" alcohol through minimum pricing would be a crucial first step in addressing the country's relationship with drink.
The letter also states: "Minimum pricing will cut alcohol-related hospital admissions and save lives. We cannot afford to delay any longer."
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, accused the SWA of opposing any measure that might hit its profits, regardless of the benefits to health. She said that in Canada a 10% increase in average minimum alcohol prices had contributed towards a reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths of almost one-third.
The charity has said that in the first year of minimum pricing there are expected to be 60 fewer deaths, 1600 fewer hospital admissions and 3500 fewer crimes.
Dr Gillan added: "Representing some of the world's biggest alcohol brands, the SWA is undermining the collective view of the Scottish Parliament, ignoring the democratic process and costing taxpayers thousands of pounds in legal bills. We appeal to the SWA to drop its legal challenge and let Scots benefit from this important health policy."
The SWA has argued the Scottish Government's policy, which was comfortably voted through at Holyrood, contravenes European Union laws. The UK Government has shelved plans to introduce minimum pricing south of the Border in the face of legal challenges.
However, Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said he remained committed to the legislation and that while he respected the right of the SWA to mount a legal challenge, the delay in implementation of the policy was "regrettable".
Mr Neil said: "Minimum pricing was passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament and has the strong backing of those who work daily with the effects of alcohol misuse - our doctors, nurses, the police and public health experts."
The legal battle over the law could last for years, with the SWA indicating it is likely to go all the way to the European Court of Justice if necessary.
Dr Richard Watson, a GP in Glasgow, spoke out in favour of minimum pricing, saying he saw the harm caused by alcohol "every working hour" in patients from across society. One of his patients, a 24-year-old woman, has developed advanced alcoholic liver disease after drinking five or six litres of strong white cider daily since her early teens and is almost certain to die shortly, he said.
He added: "This is the cheapest way of buying alcohol - it can cost as little as 18p per unit. Strong white cider is the sort of alcohol that will be seriously affected by minimum pricing. It is simply inconceivable she would be able to buy six litres of cider a day if it cost 50p a unit."
David Frost, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: "We are committed to tackling alcohol misuse through legal and effective measures, for example through our new Scotch Whisky Action Fund. However, we believe minimum unit pricing is illegal, would not target harmful and hazardous drinkers and would damage the Scotch Whisky industry. Minimum unit pricing is based on modelling, not concrete evidence.
"The right way forward is targeted help where there are problems, not blanket policies that penalise the vast majority of responsible drinkers. With alcohol-related deaths and harms falling in Scotland, we should build on measures in place that seem to be working.
"The SWA has consistently called for the legal case to be fast-tracked to the European Court Of Justice so we can speed up the process, but the Scottish Government refused to agree to this move.
"I regret the debate on alcohol policy has become so polarised. We would like to work to build a broader and better consensus."