The Scottish drinks industry is at loggerheads with alcohol charity and health campaigners over the approach ministers should take to regulate alcohol marketing, as new proposals are drawn up at Holyrood following a scrapped consultation last year.

First Minister Humza Yousaf instructed officials to go “back to the drawing board” last year after a consultation proposing a series of measures to radically tighten the rules on drinks advertising and marketing elicited an angry response from the industry. It was one of the first major decisions made by Mr Yousaf following his victory in the SNP leadership contest, and was seen a significant step in his pledge to forge a New Deal for Business.

Details have yet to emerge on what the new proposals will look like, although Scotland's new minister for drug and alcohol policy, Christina McKelvie said this week that "protecting children" will be at the heart of those plans. But while officials are drafting up revised recommendations, the battle lines have been drawn between producers and alcohol campaigners over the way drinks products should be marketed.

Drinks companies in Scotland contacted by The Herald point out that they have invested millions of pounds over recent decades to drive home the message that their products should be consumed responsibly, including in advertising campaigns.

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Firms underlined their sustained efforts to highlight safe drinking guidelines in product labelling, investment in the development of lower-strength products, and extensive sponsorship of education programmes to shape attitudes towards alcohol, including campaigns to tackle underage drinking.

They note businesses such as distilleries create important employment opportunities in remote parts of Scotland, adding that without the ability to advertise, it is nearly impossible for such enterprises to be sustainable.

However, Alcohol Focus Scotland, a charity which works to prevent and reduce alcohol harm, and physicians’ body Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), contend that restricting how, where, and when alcohol is marketed, alongside limiting the opportunities people have to buy alcohol, is the most effective way to curb consumption.

Dougal Sharp, chief executive of Edinburgh-based craft beer firm Innis & Gunn, said: “As an industry, we have supported responsible drinking for decades with startling success – alcohol consumption is in long-term decline, irrespective of the government’s tinkering.

“We have collectively invested in industry, education, labelling and responsible drinking messaging. We have also reduced the strengths of certain products and believe we are on the right track without being complacent. Meeting the growing consumer demand for low and no-alcohol products across multiple drinking occasions is further evidence of the successful work our sector has delivered in recent years.”

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He added: “If alcohol harm is such a problem, government needs to put some of the money raised through the industry into the resources to help people.”

Mr Sharp said Innis & Gunn and its industry peers are “focused on building sustainable, responsible" businesses, a point echoed by Scotch whisky giant Diageo.

“We have a strong track record of ensuring our brands depict and encourage only responsible drinking and our marketing teams continue to promote moderation in new and creative ways,” a spokesperson for Diageo said. “The Diageo Marketing Code is our mandatory minimum marketing standard which goes beyond what is required by law for alcohol marketing. It governs how we, and anyone we work with, must operate, it applies across all our markets, and it guides every aspect of our marketing activities.”

The spokesperson added: “Promoting responsible drinking is at the core of everything Diageo does in Scotland and in every market we operate in around the world. Around the world, we reach audiences with messages that aim to change attitudes, whether it’s highlighting the harm of underage drinking or binge drinking, warning of the dangers of drink driving, or using our brands to highlight the importance of moderation and responsible drinking.”

The Scotch Whisky Association highlighted Made to be Measured, its campaign that aims to help people understand the unit counts of different alcoholic drinks, as one of a number of initiatives it has undertaken to promote responsible drinking. It has just announced a new partnership with Community Alcohol Partnerships, which Tom Sallis, director of global partnerships at the SWA said support interventions to help tackle underage drinking throughout Scotland. The initiative is also backed by Chivas Brothers.

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“Activity is tailored to address local requirements to support an overall reduction in alcohol harm,” Mr Sallis said. “With a strong track record of success, we are looking forward to seeing the results of our partnership with CAP over the coming years.”

But while the drinks industry points to a range of initiatives it is leading to promote responsible drinking, alcohol charities and medical groups have queried the effectiveness of the industry’s approach. One medic questioned producers’ use of the phrase “drinking responsibly”.

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, a retired liver doctor and chairman of SHAAP, said: “The alcohol industry uses the term ‘drink responsibly’ to shift ownership of the harms caused by alcohol from themselves as the producers to us as consumers.

“It’s inherently unfair when you consider how over-exposed we are on a daily if not hourly basis to nudges to drink alcohol via online ads, alcohol sponsorship of our sports teams, radio and TV ads, and the carefully positioned drinks and marketing materials every time we walk into a supermarket or corner shop.

“If we are to ‘drink responsibly’ – which is entirely subjective anyway – surely, we should be starting from a level playing field, and not be so strongly encouraged to drink alcohol that it is often now regarded as an essential grocery item.”

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, echoed the views of Dr MacGilchrist on the industry’s use of the words responsible drinking, “partly because it’s entirely unclear what it means but also because it implies that there is a small ‘irresponsible’ minority of people who have an alcohol problem”.

Asked to comment on the effectiveness of measures put in place by the industry regarding consumption, Ms Douglas said: “Alcohol producers and retailers committed to putting the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk guidelines on alcohol labels, however, some five years later, the Alcohol Health Alliance found that over a third of product labels failed to provide accurate information.

“We believe that people have a right to know what is in their drink and to have health information on bottles and cans when deciding whether and what to drink. That’s why we continue to call for mandatory labelling and health warnings.”

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Ms Douglas added: “We need to recognise that the most effective measures to reduce alcohol consumption and harm inevitably involve restricting how, when and where alcohol is marketed and sold i.e. [by] regulating the alcohol industry.”

Ms Douglas also argued that drinks marketing “causes alcohol consumption in young people and more generally encourages positive attitudes towards alcohol and creates a culture where regular alcohol consumption is considered normal and desirable”.

She noted: “Alcohol marketing undeniably contributes to the significant burden of harm caused by alcohol. That is why we support statutory restrictions on how alcohol is marketed.”

Meanwhile, the battle continues to rage between the industry and health-focused campaigners over Scottish Government’s proposals to raise the minimum unit price of alcohol to 65p per unit from the current level of 50p.

Mr Sharp said MUP is “based on ideology rather than science”, adding that “the idea that increasing alcohol prices will lead to lower alcohol consumption because people can’t afford to buy as much is simplistic and will hit those on lower incomes most”.

“This isn’t getting to the crux of the issue, education and investment in support services is what’s needed,” he added.

Mr Sallis at the SWA said the “efficacy of MUP as a policy to reduce harmful drinking has yet to be established”, stating that a rise to 65p per unit would lead to a 30% increase in prices that “will impact consumers across Scotland, the vast majority of whom drink responsibly, at a time when they are already grappling with rising costs”.

But MUP is supported by Alcohol Focus Scotland and SHAAP. Dr MacGilchrist declared “all the evidence points to population-wide measures such as increasing the price of alcohol, restricting marketing and advertising and limiting the opportunities to buy alcohol” as more effective than educational campaigns in reducing death rates down.

Ms Douglas at Alcohol Focus Scotland said: “Minimum unit pricing for alcohol has saved and improved hundreds of lives in Scotland since it was introduced in 2018. However, in order to ensure the continued effectiveness of this policy it is essential that the minimum price is uprated to 65p per unit.”