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Health board bids to cut alcohol sales

SCOTLAND'S largest health board has stepped up its campaign against the alcohol industry by creating a post to object to liquor licences and curtail the sale of drink.

The new NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde officer, who will be paid up to £41,000 a year, will bring specific health concerns to licensing boards when applications are made, with a view to limiting the sale of alcohol.

Health officials and lobbyists hope the job, the first of its type in Scotland, will bring forensic and legal rigour to licensing objections.

Despite health protection being a key plank of Scotland's drink laws, the NHS has had very mixed results in its attempts to force itself on the agenda.

In one example, plans by a supermarket to reduce its alcohol display by almost half were erroneously opposed by the NHS, sparking criticisms of a "carpet-bombing approach to objections".

Health officials have also been criticised for "bland assertions" on the ill-effects of alcohol when objecting to licences, rather than presenting specific and legally-sound evidence.

A spokeswoman for the board said: "Reducing the availability of alcohol in communities and reducing the acceptability of misusing alcohol are our key priorities to improve the health and wellbeing of residents."

Although the health lobby has had a few notable successes, with Dundee, the Highlands and Aberdeen declaring their entire areas 'over-provision zones', others such as Edinburgh and South Lanarkshire have dismissed NHS objections as lacking in evidence.

The move comes amid a downward trend in alcohol consumption, harm and the number of pubs, although the growth of licensed mini-supermarkets shows no sign of abating.

Glasgow has 1700 licensed premises, with an estimated 13,500 problem alcohol users and 300 drink-related deaths annually.

Dr Peter Rice is one of Scotland's leading medical experts on the impact of alcohol on health.

He said that while over the last five years "the hearts and minds" of the health lobby were committed to advancing their role in the licensing system, it was clear they lacked the technical and legal ability and expertise to make any real impact.

Dr Rice, chairman of the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, said: "While we have been talking ourselves up about having possibly the world's only licensing system underpinned by health, the reality is it has been very disappointing. It has not led to any useful change.

"I remain of the opinion we need national guidance. But if this Glasgow move helps build up a body of expertise then it is a positive move."

Archie MacIver, a prominent lawyer and chairman of the Law Society's licensing committee, regularly represents clients facing health lobby objections.

He said: "There is certainly a variance in the quality of health authority objections, many of which are based on bland assertion rather than being evidentially supported. If this new post brings a greater deal of professionalism to the process then we hope that will ensure proper and informed debate takes place."

The post will be jointly funded by the Glasgow City Community Planning Partnership, which brings together the NHS, city council and other public bodies, as well as the Alcohol and Drug Partnership. It will be evaluated after 15 months to examine its effectiveness.

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