SCOTLAND HAS a well-documented problem with alcohol. Recent statistics indicate that alcohol misuse by Scots costs the nation £3.5 billion each year, which is equivalent to £900 for every taxpayer. Additionally, 25 people die each week in Scotland as a direct result of their drinking. Seen in this context, Scotland’s legislation mandating minimum unit pricing of alcohol should be commended.
It would, however, be a waste of time and energy to carry on with this law if it is to fall at the first legal hurdle. Indeed, I am concerned that the Scottish Government has agreed to introduce minimum pricing without due care and consideration for the wider impact this policy may have on trade both within and outwith the EU. Some EU states, like Bulgaria, have in fact already raised concerns about the potential negative impact it may have and may consider launching their own legal challenges. It seems clear to me that minimum pricing is vulnerable to a strong legal critique, therefore bringing its viability into question.
Earlier this month, I played host to Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw MSP as well as a number of industry figures at a summit in Strasbourg to discuss this policy and to gauge its merit on both legal and public health grounds.
In a wide-ranging and illuminating discussion, it was agreed that this policy will very likely render imported alcoholic products less competitive, thereby breaching EU competition and free movement of goods laws. Countries outside Europe who are negotiating free trade agreements with the EU will also certainly point to this legislation within an EU Member State and note that it is intrinsically anti-competitive.
This could have knock-on impacts on these sensitive negotiations, perhaps affecting the lifting of tariff barriers for key export products such as Scotch whisky. The unintended consequences of this legislation may therefore have serious effects on EU trade which have not been properly considered.
If this weren’t enough, doubts were also raised regarding other aspects of the measure.
Firstly, there was real concern that under minimum pricing, cheap alcohol will suddenly be transformed into a lucrative, high-margin product, leading retailers to promote the very drinks proponents of the law are concerned about. Moreover, as problem drinkers possess very low sensitivity to alcohol price changes, they will likely not feel pressure to curb their excessive drinking habits.
Secondly, an enormous gap exists in the minimum pricing legislation to the effect that it does not outlaw internet alcohol purchases. At the moment, there is nothing stopping the Scottish consumer from buying cheap alcohol from England or Europe, a fact that severely compromises the law and damages its credibility as a public health measure.
Fortunately, the Scottish Conservative group at Holyrood managed to insert a ‘voluntary notification’ measure into the legislation, forcing the Scottish Government to inform the EU of its proposals and ensure that all that can be done, has been done in order to ensure the legality of minimum pricing. Moreover, a sunset clause in the legislation, also a product of Scottish Conservative efforts, could see minimum pricing overturned if it proves to be a legal or public health failure. With these two levers, we will ensure that Scotland invests in an effective public health regime as we try to reign in Scotland’s poor relationship with alcohol.
We owe it to ambulance crews, NHS staff, police officers and others who bear the brunt of alcohol abuse to ensure that any proposals actually work in practice, not theory, to curb the public health menace of alcohol misuse and abuse.