Trade bodies representing the whisky industry and convenience stores rounded yesterday on Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon’s latest bid to introduce minimum alcohol pricing.
Although widely supported by police and health professionals, the policy has been challenged by some trade bodies and opposition parties.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) claimed the plans were “probably illegal” after the European Court of Justice issued a similar ruling because it was seen as a barrier to trade when other less restrictive measures were available.
Chief executive Gavin Hewitt said: “The Scottish Government’s fixation with minimum pricing as the solution to alcohol-related harm is misguided.
“Only last week the UK Government confirmed that minimum pricing is probably illegal. A legal alternative would be to work with the UK Government on a UK basis to remove tax discrimination between different drinks and to introduce a floor price for alcohol based on the revised duty rates and VAT.”
A Scottish Government spokesman insisted all legislation it brought forward was legal.
However, objections were also raised by the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF).
Both the WSTA and SGF claimed the move would hit responsible consumers. SGF chief executive John Drummond said: “We cannot support a measure which will disproportionately penalise those already struggling on lower incomes and who consume alcohol responsibly.”
Ms Sturgeon tabled the new Bill yesterday. The SNP was blocked by opposition parties when it tried to set a floor price per unit last year but the majority it won in May’s elections has removed that hurdle. In addition to her own MSPs, the LibDems will also back the move.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We have introduced a ban on quantity discounts and promotions in off-sales have been restricted, but we have seen that without minimum pricing these attempts to take action on Scotland’s alcohol problem are being undermined.
“By setting a minimum price, we can raise the price of the cheap supermarket white ciders, lager and value spirits sought out by problem drinkers.
“I hope that this time around MSPs will do the right thing and back this policy.”
Based on a 45p limit, the figure set in the previous Bill, the minimum price for a standard 700ml bottle of spirits at 37.5% ABV would be £11.82. A 500ml can of super-strength 9% beer would be £2.03, while a bottle of 12.5% wine would cost a minimum £4.22. A two-litre bottle of 6% cider would cost £5.40.
To calculate the total, a formula was used to multiply the suggested minimum price by the strength of alcohol and the volume of alcohol in litres. A Government spokesman said the new minimum price would not be revealed until the legislation made its way through Parliament early in the New Year.
Labour’s public health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson said his party remained opposed.
“If the SNP Government is serious about tackling alcohol abuse it should drop its dogmatic approach, broaden its Bill so a range of other proposals can be included, explain why it has cut the alcohol treatment budget by over £3 million in real terms and publish its legal advice to prove minimum pricing will not be blocked by the courts,” he said.
Tory health spokesman Murdo Fraser said it was an “indiscriminate policy that will do little to attack the causes of alcohol abuse”.
The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and Community Pharmacy Scotland all backed the move. BMA Scotland chairman Dr Brian Keighley said: “If our politicians are serious about helping to change our culture of heavy drinking, then they must support the Government’s Bill.”
Drink law Q&A
What is minimum pricing?
In short, minimum pricing simply sets a floor price for a unit of alcohol, meaning it can’t be sold for lower than that.
The more units a drink contains, the stronger it is and therefore the more expensive it will be. A pint of beer contains about two units, while a bottle of wine contains about 10.
What difference will a minimum price make to the cost of alcohol?
A 45p per unit minimum price, which was proposed in the last Parliament, would increase the price of a 70cl bottle of whisky to £12.60 a bottle of own brand vodka would increase from £8.35 to £11.85, a two-litre bottle of cider would go up from £1.20 to £3.75 and a bottle of wine would increase from £3.75 to £4.20.
What will the benefits be?
The Scottish Government claims that in the first year there will be 50 fewer deaths from alcohol-related harm, 1200 fewer hospital admissions, £5.5m reduction in health care costs and 22,900 fewer days absence from work.
When will this become law?
The Bill could be law by the summer of 2012.
When will the minimum price be set?
A specific minimum price per unit of alcohol will be announced during the Bill process, most likely early in the New Year.
Is it legal?
In short, we don’t definitively know. The Scottish Government believes the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol based on a minimum price per unit of alcohol is capable of complying with European law. The Scottish Whisky Association claims it violates European Union and international trade rules and will "encourage copycat trade barriers".
So who outside of the SNP administration supports the concept of minimum pricing?
The Welsh Government, Northern Ireland Executive, all 17 of Scotland’s public health directors in NHS Scotland, the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland Sir Harry Burns, British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, ACPOS, Scottish Licensed Trade Association, Church of Scotland, various children’s charities, Tennent’s, Molson Coors and Greene King.
Most opposition parties, although many in Labour have told The Herald they would support it if the additional monies went to the Treasury.
Who benefits financially?
A major sticking point for some in opposition. Without control over taxation and scope to put the extra back into health or policing, consumers paying more means both off-trade and on-trade retail sectors would see increased revenues.
The Scottish Government said when it comes to additional revenues for the big supermarkets, it will be up to producers and retailers to negotiate on the price of contracts between them.
The Government also claims it puts small retailers on more of a level playing field with the big supermarkets.