Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why We Support the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill

The Socialist Health Association Scotland supports the Alcohol Minimum Pricing (Scotland) Bill being debated at Holyrood today.

The price of alcohol misuse paid by Scottish society is well over 2 billion pounds, with the cost to the NHS estimated at over 400 million.

But, the true price of alcohol is borne by our communities and families.

Alcohol has an important place in our cultural and social lives and in our economy. But our relationship with alcohol has gone in wrong direction down the wrong road. In fact we have driven off the road and into a lamp post – drunk and disgraced.

The harmful effects of alcohol misuse are also widely known in terms of its impact on health and wellbeing and on health inequalities – where alcohol contributes much to the shameful inequality in life expectancy that blights the people of Scotland.  

Sadly, alcohol misuse hits the poorest hardest. But, as Ed Miliband said “the gap between rich and poor doesn’t just harm the poor. It harms us all”. And So problem drinking is not confined to certain groups, it affects us all. Recent data from the Scottish Health Survey show that we are all drinking too much.

Our efforts to tackle Scotland’s increasing alcohol culture have thus far been pretty hopeless. You may not be surprised that health education and awareness campaigns are the main alternative proposal from the drinks lobby. Such campaigns don’t work – are usually expensive and largely ineffective.

Many of the arguments against alcohol minimum pricing echo those we heard when the Labour-Liberal administration were legislating to ban smoking in public places. Landmark public health legislation which we can be proud in Scotland to have led the way on and which thre rest of the UK followed. Legislation, which in a short time has delivered dramatic reductions in heart disease and deaths with none of the adverse effects muted at the time.

The thrust of this Bill is to increase the cost of alcohol. Simple. Alcohol is too cheap – fact! It is over half as affordable now than it was in the ‘80s. And it’s not surprising then that consumption has doubled in the same period.

There is now a large body of evidence from around the world that links the price of alcohol to the level of consumption and in turn to the level of alcohol-related harm.

And, yes we recognise that taxation could achieve the same benefits, with the added advantage that revenue would go to the state rather than the retailers. However, excise duty is a reserved power and there is no way George Osborne and David Cameron will act. A compensatory levy, similar to the recent 'Tesco Tax', could cover this point. But it needn’t be an absolute condition for support.

The only other major argument against this legislation is that it will disproportionately affect low income groups.  Alcohol, at present, already disproportionately effects low income groups. The way supermarkets target and sell alcohol as a loss leader, row upon row of cheap cider and booze is a disgrace and no different to and arguably more harmful than a drug dealer up a close.

A robust evaluation of the policy, as it is introduced, should be undertaken which explores any adverse impacts – particularly, in relation to ensuring the most vulnerable communities are not harmed and inequalities widened. And the promised sunset clause to fully mitigate.

There is wide support for this, and the NHS, the police, the media, children’s charities, wide sections of civil society including religious groups, and public opinion. Up against who? The alcohol lobby and some licensing boards.

Like the smoking ban, this legislation is not perfect, nor is it going to be a panacea to all our alcohol problems. And of course it needs to be part of a wide range of initiatives, which need to be brought forward. But, there is no doubt it is part of the solution. 

Abstaining in parliament on such an important issue does not feel right and will not look right.

The right thing to do is to support the Bill.

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