Author Mark Richards
The Scotch Whisky Association recently lost its appeal at the UK’s highest court, meaning the way is now clear for the Scottish Government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. Will it work? Or does Scotland have other problems that need solving?
Scotland will become the first country in the world to set a minimum price for alcohol after the Scotch Whisky Association lost an appeal at the UK’s highest court. The plan to introduce a minimum price for a unit of alcohol was originally passed by members of the Scottish Parliament five years ago but has been held up by legal challenges. Now it is thought that the legislation could come into force early next year, setting the minimum price at 50p per unit.
Having fought minimum pricing the Scotch Whisky Association has had to grudgingly accept the court’s verdict. Not surprisingly, they maintain that there are more effective ways to tackle alcohol misuse, but Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted that she was “absolutely delighted.”
Absolutely delighted that minimum pricing has been upheld by the Supreme Court. This has been a long road – and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics – but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) November 15, 2017
Using the old-fashioned method of actually speaking, she added, “This has been a long road – and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics – but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health.”
What is a unit of alcohol?
We have all seen the medical advice on how many ‘units’ of alcohol we should drink in a week. But what exactly is a unit of alcohol? What will Scots get for their 50p?
For the technically minded, a unit of alcohol is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. For the rest of us, that equates to a third of a pint of beer, a single measure of whisky or half a glass of wine. Both men and women are now advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which according to Drinkaware is 6 pints of beer, six glasses of wine or 14 glasses of spirits.
Do any other countries have a minimum price for alcohol?
A small number have some form of minimum price structure, with the two most notable being Russia and Canada. Many others have rules aimed at restricting cheap alcohol sales, but none have gone as far as Scotland now proposes to do.
Does Scotland really have a problem with alcohol?
The obvious – and simplest – answer to that question is ‘yes.’ In 2015 22 people a week died from alcohol-related illnesses in Scotland, 54% higher than the comparable figure for England. In 2016 the equivalent of 10.5 litres of pure alcohol was sold per adult in Scotland, representing more than 20 units of alcohol per adult per week, compared to the recommended safe limit of 14 units per week. So yes, Scotland does have a problem with alcohol and setting a minimum price for alcohol is a far-sighted and sensible step towards combatting the problem.
Alcohol-related death rates were six times higher in Scotland’s most-deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. Alcohol-related stays in hospital were nine times higher in the most deprived areas. It would be entirely possible to argue that Scotland does not have a problem with alcohol; it has a problem with poverty and health education. It is less affluent than England and therefore it has more deaths from alcohol: solve the problem of poverty and educate people better, and there would be no need for minimum pricing.
How much do we drink in the UK?
Actually, not that much. According to the 2015 figures quoted in the Independent, the UK is above average for the developed world, but not by much. If you want to get well and truly ‘blootered’ then Estonia, Austria and – above all – Lithuania are the places to live. The Lithuanians drink a spectacular 14 litres of alcohol per person per year: the UK as a whole cannot even manage 10 litres. So even allowing for the Scots drinking more on average than the UK as a whole, in international terms, they are nowhere near the top of the league.
What are the arguments against a minimum price for alcohol?
First and foremost, it is what is known as a ‘regressive’ pricing policy. That is to say, it affects those on the lowest incomes the most. So while Nicola Sturgeon would argue the move is needed to protect the nation’s health, those on the right would point to the irony of a left-wing administration introducing what can effectively be seen as a ‘tax’ on poorer people. Doctors on six-figure salaries will not be affected by minimum pricing and the cynic might also wonder about the Members of the Scottish Parliament and their expense accounts…
Critics would also argue that there is no real evidence to suggest that minimum pricing will work; that once a minimum price for alcohol has been introduced there will be constant pressure to ratchet it upwards and that it is likely to drive yet more pubs out of business. Weatherspoon’s boss Tim Martin gave a fairly blunt reaction to the idea of minimum pricing, describing it as “utter bollocks, basically.”
What will the minimum price for alcohol mean for prices in the shops?
It is thought that the cheapest bottle of spirits will now be £14-15; a bottle of wine not less than £4.69 and the cheapest four-pack of lager will be £4.
Won’t this just lead to a black market?
A good question: we have written many times that you can do your best to regulate supply, but you cannot regulate demand. Is there anything to stop people driving a van across the border to the enormous cash and carry hypermarket that has just opened across the border in Berwick upon Tweed, not much more than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh? Nothing at all. Is there anything to then stop those enterprising entrepreneurs selling the wine, beer and whisky to their friends back home? In theory, the law: in practice, nothing at all.
What was the reaction to the ruling?
As you would expect with all well-reasoned debates, the battle was largely fought on Twitter.
As we noted above, Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the news on Twitter and then – somewhat tastelessly – added, ‘I’ll drink to that.’ However the overwhelming sentiment on social media was against the move: I have not included a link as you might find some of the language offensive, but two tweets which rather poignantly caught the mood – and reinforced the view that you cannot regulate demand – were:
The law is depressing. The alcoholics will still buy their booze and the non-alcoholics on low incomes won’t be able to celebrate small victories because they can’t afford it.
Even sadder was this tweet:
Alcohol minimum pricing. My dad is an alcoholic. Been dry 25 years. I witnessed it as a child. Horrible experience. One thing I know for certain, making alcohol more expensive would have made zero difference to him. Educate children in school. Don’t punish us all.
— Brendan’sGreen&White (@top_tipz) November 15, 2017
My dad is an alcoholic. I witnessed it as a child. Horrible experience. One thing I know for certain. Making alcohol more expensive would have made zero difference to him. Educate people in school. Don’t punish us all.
Traditionally the saying in Scotland – even used on whisky adverts – was ‘a wee dram afore ye go.’ In 1925 Bell’s registered ‘afore ye go’ as their official company slogan. Well, now the ‘wee dram’ is to become the ‘expensive dram.’ As we have seen above, whether the move will work in the way the policymakers intend remains very much open to doubt…