By Peter Rice

There was much PR spinning from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) on the opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice. His view is that it is for the Scottish courts rather than the European Court of Justice to determine whether minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol best meets the Government’s intentions to tackle alcohol harm. His question is whether MUP achieves health goals other price mechanisms do not. This has already been examined by the Scottish Parliament and Scottish courts which found the answer to be "yes”.

Why are health groups keen on MUP? There was an alarming rise in alcohol deaths in Scotland from the mid 1990s. Over the subsequent decade, these more than doubled while liver disease rates rose four fold. Things were changing rapidly for the worse.

Attempting to control alcohol harm by the regulation of pubs, the mainstay approach for more than a century, was no longer working. A licensing system based on the notion of experienced staff controlling customers wasn’t working when drinking had become a predominately home-based activity. More than half of all alcohol was drunk in pubs 20 years ago; with current trends it will soon be less than one quarter.

Action was needed to temper the effects of a supermarket-led “pile high and sell cheap” approach and it was evident from clinics and police cells that much of the harm came from the cheapest products, namely white ciders and vodkas. These were not the products the drinks industry publicised as evidence of their international success. Yet these were the drinks front-line workers heard about on a daily basis.

Evidence from more regulated markets in North America and Scandinavia, which had not experienced the increase in harm seen in Scotland, convinced Scottish practitioners that action on the cheapest alcohol was the priority, a view since supported by the World Health Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and each credible organisation that has investigated the issue.

After the MUP Bill was passed unopposed in Holyrood in 2012, it was immediately challenged by a few trade organisations led by the SWA which, in my view, represented the vodka interests of its most powerful members. By this time vodka was outselling whisky in Scotland by 40 per cent and was a crucial product for the spirits conglomerates.

Having lost the scientific and political battle, the SWA launched a legal challenge and its resources mean this has been protracted. The Court of Session made a clear judgment in 2013 that MUP was likely to be highly effective in improving health and was a proportionate and legal measure. MUP has a substantial effect on the cheapest alcohol and is a much more effective and targeted measure than general alcohol duty increases. The price of cheap cider in supermarkets is a much higher priority than the price of a pint of beer in a pub.

We’ve seen a welcome fall in Scottish alcohol deaths from more than 1,500 a year in 2006 to around 1,100 a year at present, though there have been small increases in the past two years. There have been many improvements in access to help for alcohol problems, restrictions in marketing, and some licensing boards, such as Dundee's, have taken significant steps to tackle over provison. But a major contributor to the fall in deaths is likely to have been due to prevailing economic factors with falling incomes and the intriguing increase in the price of low-cost drinks. The own-brand vodka that cost under £7 in 2006 is now more than £10 a bottle. The price of rock-bottom white ciders has risen and three-litres-for-the price-of-two offers are no more. We don’t know why this has happened. Supermarkets are under no obligation to explain themselves; they generally don’t and we can’t count on it continuing. While implementing price changes through law takes years, retailers could have £7 bottles of spirits back on the shelves tomorrow if it suited them.

So there is a need for an effective price-control mechanism that can be relied on to work in all economic circumstances. Let’s get a minimum unit price of 50p into effect, evaluate the effectiveness and inform the many other countries watching this with interest. The chances are high that this will improve the lot of many Scots affected by their own or others' drinking.

Dr Rice is chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems.