Tories Try to Block Cheap Booze Ban

Is the end to cheap booze in sight?

by Una Purdie

A heated debate is expected in the Scottish Parliament today as the Conservatives try to vote down plans for a minimum price on alcohol.

Setting a minimum price per unit is a key plank of the Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy. The move would end high strength, cut-price booze such as supermarket own brand spirits and lagers.  Conservatives oppose what they call a ‘blanket hike’ on prices, which they say will unfairly punish responsible drinkers without tackling Scotland’s alcohol problems. They hope to strike a body blow to the plans by voting them down today.

Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Murdo Fraser said: “Increasing prices will not automatically reduce consumption. Problem drinkers will find the extra money and spend less on other things, such as food for them and their family.”

The Scottish Government dismisses these criticisms. Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: “Minimum pricing will not raise the price of all drinks – it will target products sold at rock-bottom prices.”

Research from Sheffield University, commissioned by the Scottish Government, supports the case. It found a suggested minimum of 40 pence per unit would reduce consumption by 9% in harmful drinkers, cut alcohol-related deaths by nearly 19% in ten years and reduce hospital admissions by 10 per cent. The additional cost of alcohol for responsible drinkers was estimated to be £11 per year.

Minimum pricing also has strong backing from health organisations including the British Medical Association, Alcohol Focus Scotland and the World Health Organisation.

Lobbying against the proposal is the Scotch Whisky Association which warns of job losses should the policy get the go-ahead. They seized on a recent European court opinion which declared plans for minimum pricing on tobacco were illegal. The tobacco price plans had been put forward by France, Ireland and Austria but were said to distort competition and ‘were not necessary in order to protect public health.’  The SWA claims the same distortion of competiton would apply for alcohol.

With the Liberal Democrats also opposed to minimum pricing, the minority SNP Government is relying on votes from Labour to get the plans through the Scottish Parliament, but so far they are refusing to show their cards. Their new Health Spokesperson, Jackie Baillie seems less keen on the scheme than her predecessor Cathy Jamieson. The Chivas whisky distillery, employing 600 people, is situated within her constituency.

The conservatives have brought the issue to the chamber before the final bill has been published. While today’s vote is not binding, it will set the tone of the debate for the months to come.