Alcohol minimum unit pricing is a policy that divides opinion. As part of our Scotland & Alcohol series, we asked two of our writers to put the case for and against increasing the price of drink. Here, Kevin McKenna argues the Scottish Government policy shows the SNP at their most blinkered. While Rebecca McQuillan argues the move saves lives

All the errors and arrogance that characterise the Scottish Government’s approach to making policy are evident in the charade of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). It also captures the SNP’s deep loathing for Scotland’s working class communities.

You can see them sounding out all their vowels and consonants as they deliver their reasoning. And it doesn’t get much more simplistic than their attitude to problem drinking.

It can be summed up thus: too many people die from alcohol-related causes. So, let’s make it more difficult for poor people to drink by making it much more expensive. And then they get all the booze addiction quangos (which they spend tens of millions each year funding) to agree with them.

Meanwhile, they’ll avoid listening to actual independent groups not funded by them and who have lived experience of alcohol addiction. They refuse to stick to the approved script, you see. And besides, they’d have to deal with them directly. And if there’s one aspect of running Scotland that the SNP really doesn’t like it’s having to deal directly with real people and their real problems. Welcome to the MUPpet show, folks.

So far, all that’s been achieved since this was introduced in 2018 is that alcohol retailers have boosted their profits by around £70m per year. The Scottish Government will claim that attempts are being made to claw back some of the profits that MUP has gifted the alcohol sector. Perhaps, though, they should have considered this before imposing it on the country.

The Herald: Annemarie Ward, of the Faces & Voices of Recovery (FACE) charity with Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and Annie Wells MSP. Picture: Gordon Terris Annemarie Ward, of the Faces & Voices of Recovery (FACE) charity with Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and Annie Wells MSP. Picture: Gordon Terris (Image: free)

Still, at least we could relish the prospect of this flagship policy reducing all manner of alcohol-related social problems. Six years later though, we’re all still waiting. Last year’s evaluation of MUP by Public Health Scotland found alarmingly few improvements in the area of alcohol-related crime.

A similar pattern was evident in the realm of public health. There was no reduction in alcohol-related visits to A&E and the rate of alcohol-related ambulance call-outs remained broadly unaltered.

You might have expected that the steep price increase in booze would have drastically impacted Scotland’s heaviest drinkers who were the primary target demographic for Minimum Unit Pricing. Yet, there was no clear improvement there either.

Anyone who lives in those neighbourhoods worst affected by alcohol addiction could have told them this. Annemarie Ward, Chief Executive of the addiction recovery charity FAVOR, reinforced this when I interviewed her last week.

“It’s not the alcohol that’s attractive,” Ms Ward told me, “it’s the oblivion that comes with it. So, people will simply turn to the cheapest methods of oblivion. The political actors and their middle-class policies have no idea of the inadvertent consequences of these actions, which is people turning to cheaper alternatives for oblivion.

“It’s the mind altered state they’re looking for. Why are they looking for that? Because they’re in pain. Why are they in pain? Because of inequality.”

It’s not a coincidence that the number of drugs-related deaths in Scotland began to climb sharply in the intervening years.

READ MORE: Minimum alcohol pricing policy is just one tool in the box

READ MORE: 'Scotch whisky is the top of the pyramid – we should champion it'

READ MORE: How Minimum Unit Pricing affects workers in the drinks industry

READ MORE: Scotland & Alcohol: Find the full list of articles in our series here

The Scottish Government’s tragic ignorance about addiction is also evident in other ways. Failing to understand the need for oblivion and release – no matter how temporary – they didn’t anticipate that alcoholics and problem drinkers would spend less on healthy food.

And that seeing the price of their favourite supermarket cider rocket, they’d choose spirits which hit the bloodstream far more quickly, resulting in well, reaching oblivion faster. The Scottish Government was warned about this by FAVOR (Faces and Voices of Recovery). But when you deal with the SNP you’re dealing with the Faces and Voices of Stupidity.

Public Health Scotland, in line with the approved narrative, has chosen to portray MUP as a success, a conclusion that’s been challenged by FAVOR who, crucially, are not funded by the Scottish Government and are thus entirely independent of it.

The charity says: “Disregarding the random decrease in alcohol-related deaths that occurred in Scotland prior to the policy implementation further raises questions about the study’s findings. Similarly, the purported decline in hospital admissions lacks statistical significance and relies on estimates derived from hypothetical scenarios.”

FAVOR also highlights a further absurdity, that despite the number of alcohol deaths reaching a 15-year high, Public Health Scotland produced a magic beans type of modelling. This claimed that the figures would have been 13% worse were it not for MUP.

The most recent alcohol death numbers showed an increase of 2% overall deaths, mainly caused by an alarming increase in female deaths (31). In the last three years, there has been a 25% rise in alcohol-related deaths. We’re expected to swallow the line that, were it not for MUP, the situation would be a lot worse. Aye, right.

Let’s speak frankly here. The Scottish Government and its superannuated executives in the addiction sector don’t actually believe in the concept of full recovery. This is why, in their drugs strategy, they prefer the path of least resistance (and least financial outlay). This is manifest in ‘harm reduction’ such as safe consumption rooms. They refuse to fund actual rehab beds because they don’t consider addicts worth the expense. These poor people are of no consequence to them.

Their attitude to alcohol addiction exhibits a similar level of disdain. Rather than fund front-line services managed by organisations with lived experience of addiction they think that sticking 65p per unit on supermarket booze – up from 50p – will solve the problem. Meanwhile, the communities worst afflicted by alcohol and drug addiction are always the first targets when money must be saved. So they come for their libraries, their swimming pools and their community centres.

The Herald: Christina McKelvie 'reached for a familiar lexicon of meaningless locutions'Christina McKelvie 'reached for a familiar lexicon of meaningless locutions' (Image: PA)

In Scotland, another absurd facet of the Scottish Government’s chaotic approach to alcohol and drug addiction is evident. In all their systems and structures they avoid any mention of 12-step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

In England they are far more eager to embrace the success of the 12 steps and these fellowships are an integral part of the addiction treatment system. It makes sense. The programme works and it costs the government nothing.

Curiously, the Scottish addiction treatment system appears actively to discourage any reference to the 12 steps. I’ve been told by people with direct experience of this that they’re reluctant to disclose their personal recovery status due to the pervasive fear of stigma.

Interviewed in yesterday’s Herald, Scotland’s Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy, Christina McKelvie reached for a familiar lexicon of meaningless locutions.

And so, it’s all eyes down for a full house. “Partnership and collaborative working”. “Alcohol and drug partnerships and third sector partners.” “National Mission.” “Partnership working between ministerial portfolios.”

While you keep mouthing this nonsense, Ms McKelvie, people will keep on dying.

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