The issue of minimum pricing for alcohol is once again dominating the Scottish media. Yesterday, the SNP administration announced that they would be seeking the widely expected tariff of 50p per unit. Back in November, when the bill was re-introduced, we put down our thoughts on minimum pricing, and how the various groups expressing an interest (either for or against) would respond. There is still a long way to go before minimum pricing becomes the law in Scotland – despite what the SNP state publicly. Here are four major turning points, as we see it.
1. The big night out
There can’t be a person in Britain who hasn’t seen the TV news clips of young people staggering around in the ‘no-go areas’ of our night-time city streets. It’s not as if the boozers are depriving the well-behaved masses of their gentle evening passeggiata – but something needs to be done. Minimum pricing won’t affect pre-loading – put up the price of cheap voddy, and the kids will just spend less once they get into town. Many publicans are responsible, but cracking down on those who serve people already inebriated would be a huge step forward instead.
2. Don’t make the spirits angry
The Scottish Government has a target of doubling Scotland’s exports by 2017 – and as whisky constitutes 20% of the current figure (worth £1.8bn) – our distilleries clearly carry some weight. Many of their trade bodies are not happy with minimum pricing – the Scotch Whisky Association has consistently argued that minimum pricing is illegal under EU Trade Law. Can the government placate this key sector of Scottish Industry? Look for legal challenges to be mounted if minimum pricing becomes law.
3. Most drinkers won’t even notice
The vast majority of alcohol sold in British pubs is already dispensed at higher than 50p a unit. In theory, pubs should have nothing to fear from this. Small traders and off-licences will notice the difference however, as they will have to sell mega-strength ciders at a higher price. One notable exception to all of this is the most infamous Scottish elixir – Buckfast – which already retails at over 50p a unit, so won’t be affected. Most drinkers will carry on buying their booze, irrespective of a price increase – so is 50p too low?
4. Follow the money
Lester Freamon knew what the most crucial factor was. Minimum pricing is not a tax (unlike the high strength beer duty increase), so the money will not go to the Government to spend on the NHS – assuming that’s where it would have been invested. As a point of sale tariff, it will be a windfall for the one group who, to this point, have been rather quiet on the issue – the major supermarkets. People will continue to buy alcohol on their weekly shop. Prices of most other goods are increasing anyway, cushioning the ‘whoa, why is that expensive now?’ factor. Labour has warned of a £140m bonanza for the supermarkets.
There are so many implications still to be considered – minimum pricing is far from a done deal. Scotland is the first country in the world with freely available alcohol to attempt this measure. Broadly, we’re in favour of the measure here on the BeerCast – but then, we earn a decent wage, drink in great pubs and already pay well over 50p per unit for all the alcohol we consume. And our days of stumbling in the puke-filled gutters are over (at least for this week).
Historically, has prohibition ever worked? Even lesser schemes such as this – pricing people out of their drug, rather than cutting the supply off completely – are fraught with problems. For minimum pricing to work in Scotland, firstly it will need to be completely legal – which even the SNP aren’t completely sure of (Nicola Sturgeon said before Christmas that they ‘believed’ it complied with EU law). Of course, they have presumably strengthened their legal position now the actual 50p price has been revealed.
Secondly, it needs to be studied. Last night, BBC Scotland dispatched a reporter to Leith to ask the public if they thought it would work. Clearly not a scientific study, anecdotally at least Leithers seemed to be of the opinion that it wouldn’t – people would still drink if they wanted to. Are the Governement listening? Have they tried to understand why the general public in areas like Leith (rather than Morningside) don’t believe it will work? Alcohol statistics are clearly vital to assessing how minimum pricing fares once it is introduced.
The SNP wants their ‘smoking ban moment’ – fair enough, Scotland’s drinking is an issue and something needs to be done. But it’s not just enough to simply rely on making booze harder to get hold of. Other measures also need to be given as much publicity – alcohol misuse drop-in centres, effective community policing, and a crackdown on unscrupulous publicans, club owners and retailers. Merely putting up the price of a drug isn’t enough. For it to work – and we’re hopeful it will – the wider issues also need to be addressed.