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17 May 2012

Scotland’s alcohol problem

Scotland’s alcohol problem

Since gaining power in 2007, the Scottish government have consistently sought to tackle Scotland’s well-documented alcohol problem. Consumption has increased by 11 per cent since 1994 and is 23 per cent higher than in England and Wales. Alcohol misuse is estimated to cost the economy over £3.56 billion a year in crime, days lost from work, and the wider health and social problems.

In the last Scottish parliament, the SNP government managed to negotiate through an alcohol bill which exemplified, more than anything, the challenges of governing with a minority. The resulting bill was weak and did not include their key proposals of minimum pricing which was ultimately rejected by the other parties.

Less than two years on, things are now very different. Having won a remarkable majority in last year’s election, the SNP now have the power, and arguably the public mandate, to push through whatever legislation it so wishes. It therefore was no surprise that the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) Bill was one of the first pieces of legislation the SNP brought before the new parliament.

The bill has the sole purpose of introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol sold by Scottish retailers. Modelling by the University of Sheffield has estimated that 50p per unit would see consumption reduced by 5.5 per cent and a 10 per cent drop for heavy drinkers. Such evidence has seen minimum pricing gain the support of a variety of professional bodies included the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the British Medical Association. It is also currently being pursued by the Westminster government on the back of support by the House of Commons Health Select Committee.

While described by some as a 'tax on drinking', the Scottish government’s bill will see any increased revenue going to the retailer and not back to the government. This expected windfall for retailers, and particularly supermarkets, is why the Labour Party, among others, continues to oppose the legislation. 

Despite this the legislation will pass easily by the end of the month. The SNP not only have a majority but also the newfound support of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives, gained through the inclusion of a sunset clause. This will allow a review of the legislation in six years’ time to access the effectiveness of the legislation and presumably abandon the scheme if there is no evidence to support its success.  

The effects of alcohol misuse are seen in every community across the country with many Christian churches and organisations leading the way to help those who directly and indirectly suffer from the consequences. As Christians we should continually question the reasons behind the over-consumption of alcohol and offer viable solutions where appropriate. While the bill will do little to solve this it should still engender our support. Behind the bill is a genuine desire to tackle the huge social and health consequences of alcohol misuse and we must all hope and pray that it works.