AN international expert on tobacco control is calling for Scotland to lead the way in a global ‘war’ to tackle alcohol problems, similar to the efforts which have been made to reduce smoking across the western world.
Professor Gerard Hastings, who founded the Centre for Tobacco Control Research at Stirling University, and has advised governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO), said tobacco and alcohol were examples of an “industrial epidemic”, where health issues are being driven by commercial interests.
He wants Scotland to take a leading role in urging the WHO to introduce a framework which will outline how countries can take action to address alcohol problems by introducing measures around advertising, packaging and the way it is sold.
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Hastings will make the call at a major international summit being held in Edinburgh this week, which will examine the most effective ways to reduce alcohol-related harm – which campaigners say causes an estimated 3.3million deaths worldwide every year.
The Global Alcohol Policy Conference, which takes place from 7-9 October, will be attended by more than 400 delegates from 55 countries.
Hastings said: “With tobacco, public health has eventually got its head round it and said if you are really going to tackle tobacco, you have to do something about the business side of this.
“Initially that focused in on advertising, as that is a very visible part of what they are doing.
"But it is actually having to look at the whole marketing environment - which is not just the advertising but the product development, the pricing strategies, the distribution, the point of sale, the packaging and also indeed all the stuff that big business does to curry favour with government as well as customers.
“To deal with that, the route that was taken was to produce the (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”
The framework is an international treaty that outlines specific commitments which governments sign up to - such as stopping advertising of tobacco, having cigarettes in plain packaging and taxation of tobacco. It was a hailed as a landmark for public health when it came into force in 2005, and hailed as one of the first global treaties to tackle a chronic, non-communicable disease. Nearly 170 countries have signed up to it.
Hastings said a similar treaty should now been put place for alcohol – but added that WHO could only act if its member countries asked it to do so.
He added it was not about “demonising” business, but recognising that companies prioritised the interest of shareholders – which sometimes came into conflict with "wider senses of value".
On the issue of voluntary regulation of the drinks industry, he said: “That is like a farmer going to a fox and saying can we have a gentleman’s agreement not to eat the chickens? The fox eats chickens - big business goes after profits.
“We can’t expect it to do that and at the same time say also become a charity – it is not going to happen.”
He added: “Scotland has a noble record of being a champion of public health [regarding tobacco], it could do the same with alcohol.
“Scotland can start stirring this pot and getting things moving on it. I think there is an appetite for it – so if Scotland picks this up as we are hosting this major conference, I think that will have a dramatic impact and could not just make things a lot better in Scotland, but could change the world.”
Meanwhile, a private member’s bill which contains proposals to reduce alcohol problems in Scotland, introduced by former GP and Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson, will also be scrutinised by Holyrood’s health and finance committees this week.
With ten main proposals – including restrictions on alcohol advertising near schools, banning orders which prevent individuals from entering pubs and clubs, and recording offences which are linked to alcohol – it is the largest private member’s bill presented to the Scottish Parliament.
Simpson said he would support Hastings in terms of having an international campaign to limit the advertising of alcohol in a similar way to tobacco.
“The harms are not quite the same, but there needs to be further restrictions on advertising,” he said.
“It is about trying to de-normalise alcohol as well – it may be used by over 80% of the population, but having almost ubiquitous advertising and spending vast amounts on advertising is not acceptable.”
Plans by the Scottish Government to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol have been delayed by a legal challenge from the industry.
Last month the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice ruled MUP was not precluded by EU law, but set out tests the national courts would have to apply. The legal process is ongoing and the case will have to return to the Scottish courts.
Rosemary Gallagher, spokeswoman for the Scotch Whisky Association, which lodged the legal challenge, said they believed there were other effective methods which could be used to combat misuse, rather than minimum unit pricing which would be “ineffective and is likely to be illegal”.
She added: “We believe partnership working between government and other stakeholders is fundamental to tackling alcohol harm. It is therefore frustrating that we, along with all members of the alcohol industry, have been told we are not welcome at this week’s Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Edinburgh.
“We are committed to tackling misuse and will shortly be announcing the organisations which will benefit from the second round of grants from our £500,000 Scotch Whisky Action Fund.”
Minister for public health Maureen Watt, said: “The World Health Organisation already has a strong global strategy on alcohol which we support.
“That public health policy should be formed free of undue industry influence is important and we are delighted to be hosting the 2015 Global Alcohol Policy Conference, which will provide an opportunity to explore these issues."
She added: “Scotland has taken action at a national level and is viewed as a world leader on tackling alcohol misuse.
"Our Alcohol Framework contains over 40 measures to reduce alcohol-related harm and is aligned with the recommendations within the World Health Organisation’s Global Strategy.”