Thursday, 23 September 2010

Scottish Government defeated on minimum pricing

In a vote that attracted UK-wide attention, the Scottish Government has been defeated on the key issue of the Alcohol Bill, the much-discussed issue of minimum pricing. As seems to be the pattern in such highly charged issues, the votes went along party lines, with the Greens supporting the Scottish National Party in voting for minimum pricing and the Labour and Tories voting against, with only former health minister Malcolm Chisholm MSP breaking ranks.

Labour appointed a commission that reported on the issue, saying that the issue was a UK-wide one, should be based on taxation rather than minimum pricing and a ban on selling below cost. To that extent it makes sense but the Alcohol Commission has also suggested banning alcohol sponsorship and a banning alcohol at official functions. In the middle of a public financial crisis banning sponsorship is lunacy: allegations abound that sponsorship deals include cheap drink that encourages binge drinking, and there may be some truth in this but it is a moot point whether it outweighs the health benefits brought by more participation in sports.

We're not doing very well then. Neither a Scotland-only policy that sets a minimum price per 'unit' (whatever that is), nor blanket ban on alcohol companies sponsoring functions and sporting events, is likely to go very far in stopping people from drinking. As Richard Simpson MSP pointed out in the Chamber, a separate minimum pricing policy in Scotland would provide business for cross-border informal alcohol sales. And as this blogger points out, such a policy would exert the most pressure on the lowest earners, leading in some circles to a deepening spiral of crime, debt and family breakdown.

Almost more dangerous than this possibility is the one of attempting to stop sponsorship by the alcohol trade in the same way that tobacco companies have already experienced. Apart from taking money out of the economy away from areas that need investment (sport, for example), this option marginalises the whole industry. The government should instead demand input from the alcohol industry into policy recommendations: who understands the alcohol trade like them that produce it? This is the approach suggested by The International Coalition Against Prohibition in their reply to last year's consultation on the issue. (TICAP also promotes the Brussels Declaration on Scientific Integrity, which points out that moderate consumption of alcohol has health benefits and prohibition thus not a sensible health policy option.)

In broad terms, although I haven't absorbed enough detail so far, it seems much better to allow the alcohol industry full participation in drink damage limitation exercises, than to allow government health departments full authority in this area. Sure, the Health and Sport Committee can run about managing the tobacco and alcohol industries but is that its job? Input is one thing, but it is surely not appropriate that the Health and Sport Committee leads on the detailed regulation of a trade issue.

The Scottish Government's report in 2007, Better Care, Better Health (a jumbled sandwich with direct discussion of public health priorities in the middle) seems 90 per cent concerned with health service management and targets. The page featuring the Health and Sport Committee on the Scottish Parliament website reflects a similar preoccupation with Health Service management, and its recent reports, listed at the bottom of the page, don't cover sport at all. Wouldn't it be better for alcohol and tobacco to be regulated by industry and trade department officials (admittedly a problem in post-devolutionary Scotland) than by a health department with too much on its plate already? (and is there any commitment to youth sport?)

Minimum pricing is off the agenda at any rate: it remains to be seen what will replace it, as May 2011 is just a few months away.


Smoking Hot said...

They'll not stop there. They'll try again and again as is the EU way when you don't get the result you want.

Belinda said...

We'll see. It seems unfortunately to be identified with the cause of Scottish Nationalism itself (at least in many people's minds

Allan said...

Hi there, thanks for the link to my blog.

I think the jist of the post was this, that instead of looking at whether periphary issues about minimum pricing, why not look to see if it will work. Which for reasons outlined in my post, i don't think that it will.

Belinda said...

Hi Allan – you're welcome.

I don't think so either but largely because people will inevitably take advantage of price differentials and get their booze from outside Scotland. Hope I didn't misrepresent your post in any way.