It could have been a big day for public health in Scotland. It could have been the day when notice was served on Scotland’s ugliest health blight – its rising tide of binge drinking, drunkenness and alcohol-related illness and injury.
On Thursday this week, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon introduced the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill – a raft of proposals including further restrictions on drink promotions, powers to raise the legal purchasing age to 21 and, most controversially, mandatory minimum pricing to banish all those special offers of ultra-cheap drink at ‘pocket-money prices’ lining supermarket shelves
Everyone knows Scotland has the worst alcohol problem in the UK, indeed in most of Europe. We’ve seen its alcohol-related death rates doubling in the last 15 years, and alcohol-related liver disease rising faster than almost anywhere in the world.
Drink now kills about one person in 20 in Scotland and costs the country at least £2.25 billion in extra services and lost productivity. This toll is nothing less than shocking and amounts to a huge public health crisis that demands to be tackled with steady determination.
The SNP-led Scottish Government’s Alcohol Bill looked set to do just that until it came up against the combined machinations of party politics and the drinks trade.
Just hours before the Bill was launched, the Scottish Labour Party finally decided to join the Tories and Lib-Dems in declaring themselves opposed to the minimum pricing proposal. Unless deals can be done and sensible compromises reached, this element of the Bill will fail, knocking a great hole in the new legislation.
Needless to say this is all a massive disappointment to the supporters of minimum pricing, including all four UK Chief Medical Officers, the Royal Colleges of Nursing, Physicians, Surgeons and GPs, the UK Faculty of Public Health, the BMA, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and even the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.
We at the FPH have done all we can to bring the arguments to bear, and at our recent Scottish conference have pointed out the potential gains in health, wellbeing and lives saved if the minimum price were set at various levels. Alcohol consumption is closely associated with price – and the higher the minimum is set, the more it would deter heavy drinking. But too high a price would be punitive for the great majority who drink moderately and sensibly – and could encourage crime and smuggling – so a compromise would have to be reached through rational, informed debate.
I hope that the Scottish Parliamentary process will allow such debate to take place. I hope that Labour’s newly declared position is tactical and that they will at least offer enough support to the minority SNP government to permit proper discussion. Their current argument that minority pricing is ‘probably illegal’ under EU law seems very weak when stacked up against the hugely pressing social and humanitarian issue that heavy drinking in Scotland has undoubtedly become.
This week could have seen a major step being taken on the way to better health for the people of Scotland. Despite the latest setback, perhaps it still can be.
Let us have the debate – and let us see if, once again, Scotland can set an example to the rest of the UK by taking a strong, brave and decisive step for public health.