Published on March 14th, 2012 | by Dean Carr
Minimum Pricing for Alcohol
The SNP conference and the current state of reform
Alcohol misuse in Scotland is widely considered to be a national problem- the Scottish government has estimated the public sector response to the consequences of alcohol misuse costs £3.56bn each year. In the Scottish National Party conference last weekend, deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon echoed the prevailing sentiment that alcohol misuse is Scotland’s biggest domestic problem, a problem that ‘blights lives, breaks families, wrecks communities’. Indeed, a significant proportion of her conference speech was devoted to urging all in Scotland – the people, the political parties and particularly the drinks industry – to unite behind the SNP’s proposed minimum pricing reform:
“So my message today is this: let us all respect the will of parliament, let us turn this policy into practice and let us get on with the job of sorting out this nation’s relationship with alcohol.”
The Alcohol Bill
The ‘Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill’, reintroduced by MSPs, aims to target the minimum retail price of every alcoholic drink. The price setting formula embodied within the bill stipulates that minimum price will be calculated per unit of alcohol, resulting in minimum retail prices across the marketing spectrum:
The minimum price of alcohol is to be calculated according to the following formula—
MPU x S x V x 100
MPU is the minimum price per unit,
S is the strength of the alcohol, and
V is the volume of the alcohol in litres.
In England and Wales, a similar ban on the sale of alcohol below a minimum price will be introduced from 6 April 2012. It has been predicted by the Home Office that a resulting shift in consumer patterns will prevent around 7,000 alcohol-related crimes a year. Under the conditions of the Act, shops and bars will not be able to sell drinks for less than the tax paid on them, capping minimum retail prices at 21p per unit of beer and 28p per unit of spirits. On the high street, this will translate as 38p for can of weak lager and £10.71 for a litre of vodka.
The number of alcohol related deaths in Scotland has risen sharply since 1992. It is this well publicised trend that has prompted urgent government measures to influence the nation’s relationship with alcohol.
Source of statistics: General Register Office for Scotland.
Political opposition to the Scottish bill
As the only party within Scottish parliament not to the SNP’s bill, Labour have launched a detailed alternative plan. Labour’s plan promises a “comprehensive package” of reforms, aimed less towards a single price review and more towards a period of consultation and fourteen alternative measures, including a limit on caffeine in alcoholic drinks. Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson, a former GP and a Labour public health spokesman, said: “This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. Included within Labour’s plan would be a consultation called ‘Shifting the Culture’, addressing issues spanning public health and criminal justice policy.
Other threads of political opposition have gradually wound down. Having previously suggested that a blanket minimum pricing policy would not work, Tory leader Ruth Davidson has confirmed that the Scottish Conservative Party will drop its opposition to minimum unit pricing for alcohol and the SNP’s bill. Despite this growing support, Sturgeon has reacted furiously to Labour’s show of political opposition: “They should be completely and utterly ashamed of themselves…Labour is a lost cause on this issue, so I don’t intend to waste any more breath on them.”
SNP appeal to the drinks industry
Sturgeon also used her speech to appeal to the drinks industry to back minimum pricing measures, describing industry members as “voices in the debate that mattered”. Having described Labour as a “lost cause” – politically isolated in their opposition to the bill – she somewhat paradoxically urged those in the alcohol industry not to try to delay the new legislation by “tying it up in the courts”. Legal opposition to pricing reforms in Scotland and in England and Wales has the potential to slow down reform, as drinks companies span the legislative divide and have been recognised as an important voice in the debate.
The current state of reform
For the time being, it would seem that public image of reforming the Scottish relationship with alcohol has been railroaded; swallowed up within a broader political conflict that encompasses multiple issues: “Now, on minimum pricing and on so many issues, Labour is just an obstacle to progress”. The SNP, the majority party of the Scottish Parliament, has essentially put all of its eggs in one basket, proposing a single, firm measure to tackle the problem. Labour, meanwhile, has proposed a broader package, likely to win support from medical professionals and health campaigners. Given that minimum pricing legislation has been introduced in Westminster, it would seem that forms of minimum pricing will be coming into force throughout the UK this time next year.