After a ruling in the Scottish Supreme Court this week, the Scottish Government seems set to introduce a policy which would mean, in effect, the end of very cheap booze. The government would be able to set a minimum price for alcohol.
The reason is obvious: an attempt to reduce the harmful effects of drinking. A legal challenge to the policy by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) was thrown out on Wednesday. Wales and Northern Ireland are in the process of pursuing a similar policy. Should England now do the same?
The campaign for minimum pricing has been a long one. In 2012 David Cameron promised to do it in England - only to back off under pressure from the drinks industry. Scotland actually passed a law five years ago but was then prevented from implementing it by a legal challenge thrown down by the SWA who argued that it would breach European law.
The argument in favour of the law was that it was a vital way to reduce the number of deaths caused by drinking too much. It’s estimated that in Britain as a whole, 23,000 people die prematurely each year because of it. The SWA did not deny that excessive consumption of alcohol is a killer but argued that government should introduce other measures to bring the number down. They argued that minimum pricing would constitute a market distortion and be against EU law.
It is that challenge which has been defeated. The Scottish Supreme Court unanimously threw out the challenge, arguing that minimum pricing was ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. It accepted that the move would involve some market distortion but Lord Mance said: ‘I find it impossible … to conclude that this can or should be regarded as outweighing the health benefits which are intended by minimum pricing’.
The original legislation was supported by all parties at Holyrood and the Scottish government is now likely to proceed with the policy in the New Year:. It will mean imposing a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol. The effect on the price of the cheapest booze is likely to be considerable. The cost of a four-pack of the cheapest beer will rise from £1.00 to £1.78. A three-litre bottle of cider, now costing £3.59 will go up to £11.22. A £9.97 70cl bottle of vodka will cost £13.11 and an £11 bottle of whisky will rise to £14.
With Wales and Northern Ireland taking the same route, the focus is now on whether England should do the same. David Cameron backed away from his preferred plan five years ago to introduce a 40p minimum price Instead he proposed a ban on the extreme discounting of alcohol. But this had an effect on only 1% of sales. Campaigners dismissed it as ludicrously inadequate in the face of the costs that excessive alcohol consumption involves.
Research by the University of Sheffield suggests that if a 50p minimum price had been up and running in England for a few years, 530 premature deaths per year would be prevented in England. In addition there would be nearly 23,000 fewer hospital admissions related to drink, nearly 35,000 fewer drink-related crimes committed and around 156,000 fewer days lost from work. Over twenty years, the NHS would save £1.4bn. Sir Ian Gilmore, the chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, a body that represents over fifty organisations campaigning for the introduction of minimum pricing, says: ‘A failure to do so will needlessly cost more lives’.
However, not everyone backs the move. Opponents argue, as they have done over the increased taxation of tobacco, that the measure would hit the poor far more than the rich since it is the poor who buy cheap booze: bthere’s very little demand for three-litre bottles of cheap cider among people who prefer expensive claret at their dinner parties. They also argue that using price only as the means of curbing alcohol consumption is discriminatory. After all, the twenty thousand people who die early deaths in England every year are not just poor people who drink too much: wealthy alcoholics kill themselves too and minimum pricing will do nothing to stop that happening.
Campaigners for the measure acknowledge that minimum pricing will not alone deal with the problem of excessive alcohol-related death but argue that it is by far the most effective way of beginning to get the numbers down. There is also another issue. If England fails to follow Scotland’s example, the likelihood is that the north of England will turn into a giant supermarket of cut-price booze as Scots dash south to stock up on the stuff and get round the higher prices back home. That in turn will lead to even more deaths from cheap alcohol in the north of England, it’s claimed.
As yet there has been no indication from Westminster, following the Scottish court decision, as to the British government’s thinking. Mrs May has of course got a lot else on her hands at the moment. But sooner or later she is going to have to take a decision as to whether she will go where David Cameron previously dared not tread and defy a drinks industry that has traditionally been a major benefactor to her party.
What’s your advice to her? Let us know.