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Wednesday, 06 June 2012

Alcohol minimum pricing bill passed amid questions over its legality

Written by The Editorial Team

Scotland will become the first place in the UK to introduce minimum drink pricing, after MSPs passed new laws this month. The government has set the price of alcohol at 50p per unit, to tackle Scotland's historic alcohol abuse problems but critics have question the legality of the Bill.

Under the plans, the ­cheapest bottle of wine would be £4.69 and a four-pack of lager would cost at least £3.52.

The move won broad political backing, although Labour refused to support the legislation at the Scottish Parliament.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: “This is a landmark moment in Scotland’s fight against alcohol misuse. I am delighted that Parliament has passed the Bill and minimum pricing will now become law. It has been a long road to get to where we are now and we have worked hard to convince those who were in doubt that this was the right policy for Scotland. I’m glad that my parliamentary colleagues have done the right thing today in voting to make these proposals a reality.

“This policy will save lives – it’s as simple as that. It is time to turn the tide of alcohol misuse that for too long has been crippling our country. Minimum pricing will kick-start a change by addressing a fundamental part of our alcohol culture -  the availability of high-strength low-cost alcohol.

“Together with other measures like quantity discounts, irresponsible promotions on alcohol and our record investment of £196 million to tackle alcohol misuse, I believe this wide package of measures will help to create the cultural shift needed to change our relationship with alcohol.”

Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said minimum pricing could help to end the country's heavy-drinking culture.

The doctors' leader said: "I am proud that Scotland's politicians are once again leading the world on public health policy."

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which represents pubs and clubs, also welcomed the measure. Chief executive Paul Waterson hailed minimum pricing as a "brave step by the Scottish Government", saying: "The 50p-per-unit minimum price is an appropriate starting point which is fair and proportionate to help combat the low-cost sales of alcohol we see around us every day which contribute to the abuse of alcohol problems within Scotland."

However, some have questioned the legality and effectiveness of the Bill in tackling the root causes of alcohol misuse.

Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) Interim chief executive Gavin Partington, said: “Whilst the introduction of minimum unit pricing has been approved by the parliament, questions remain about its legality and effectiveness in tackling the root causes of alcohol misuse.

“It is disappointing that so much time has been devoted to minimum unit pricing when there are many proven, effective and targeted measures that could already have been implemented by the Scottish government to begin tackling alcohol misuse.”

Also, the Conservative Party are urging legal action against minimum alcohol pricing, despite supporting the Scottish Government plan. The party wants other EU states to challenge the policy to ensure a quick decision on whether it meets free trade rules.

The Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill will enforce a 50p per unit floor price on units of alcohol, pushing up the cost of cheaper, stronger drink.

Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: "This is not an attempt to thwart the Bill but rather to ensure that every effort is made to determine whether the measure is legal."

His party agreed to back the policy after securing a voluntary commitment by the Scottish Government to notify the European Commission (EC) of its plan. The EC might not give a ruling unless there is a challenge from one of the 27 EU member states, said Mr Carlaw.

He said: "It is vital that minimum pricing is given a robust MOT to ensure it does not break EU free trade rules. So, to ensure that the EC expresses a view, Scottish Conservatives intend to meet and encourage concerned member states to mount a challenge so we can have clarification from Europe on the legality of a 50p unit price for alcohol.

"This process has shown how the Scottish Conservatives can deliver for Scotland in the face of a majority SNP Government. If it works then we will be delighted that we aided that success. If it fails then we have secured the mechanism by which it can be dropped."

A so-called sunset clause was also secured by the Tories, meaning the policy could be ditched in six years if it does not work. Mr Carlaw will travel to Brussels next month for a series of talks with industry figures and politicians from member states in Europe. Legal action could then be launched within a window of three to six months, he said.

Concerns that the policy is illegal were raised with Westminster's science and technology committee in October last year. UK public health minister Anne Milton told the committee: "Minimum unit pricing, I think, is an expression used, not by this committee, slightly carelessly sometimes by others.

"Our advice is that, in itself, it is probably illegal as it contravenes European free trade legislation. I know Scotland is thinking about introducing it, and they will be challenged, and that will clarify the law. But our advice is that it is illegal."

Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, questioned the effectiveness of the policy adding the charge would be "ineffective in tackling alcohol misuse" and also said it had "consistently been ruled to be illegal in Europe".

Mr Hewitt went on: "It will damage the industry. The Scottish Government's own research shows that minimum pricing will not reduce the number of hazardous drinkers."

Sam Bowman, head of research at economic think tank the Adam Smith Institute, was scathing of the charge, branding it "a miserable, Victorian-era measure that explicitly targets the poor and the frugal, leaving the more expensive drinks of the middle classes untouched".

He said: "It's regressive and paternalistic, treating people as if they're children to be nannied by the Government."

Britons "drink less than we did 10 years ago, less than we did 100 years ago and far less than we did in the 19th century".

Mr Bowman said: "Hysteria about drinking alcohol is a red herring invented by the health lobby. Health fascism is back with a vengeance and minimum alcohol pricing is just another brick in the wall."