A recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court has granted Scotland permission to set a minimum price for alcohol, after years of court challenges blocked the legislation. Despite a pricing plan being passed by Members of Scottish Parliament in May 2012, challenges were made by the Scottish Whiskey Association, who argued that an excise duty would be an equally effective way of achieving the government’s objectives.
The decision was unanimous, with seven Supreme Court judges stating that the legislation did not breach European Union laws and was legal on health grounds. With the seven judges describing the legislation as “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”, the ruling clears the way for the Scottish government to introduce a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks, and will increase the pressure in England and Ireland to follow suit.
How does it work?
The aim of the Scottish government is to reduce the amount that problem drinkers consume, by raising the price of the strongest, cheapest alcohol. This move is not a tax or duty increase. It’s simply a price hike for the cheapest available alcohol, with any extra cash going directly to the retailer.
In 2016, Alcohol Focus Scotland stated the maximum recommended weekly intake of alcohol (14 units) could be bought for just £2.52.
With the legislation outlining a minimum price of 50p-per-unit, the increase would raise the price of the cheapest bottle of red wine (9.4 units of alcohol) to £4.69, a four-pack of 500ml cans of 4% lager (8 units) would cost at least £4 and a 70cl bottle of whisky (28 units of alcohol) could not be sold for less than £14.
Need for change
In the five years since the legislation was passed, alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have increased. Shona Robinson, the Scottish Health Secretary, said: “With alcohol available for sale at just 18p a unit, the death toll remains unacceptably high.
It is the cheapness and availability of alcoholic products that has had a direct impact on hospital admissions and mortality rates. Professor Petra Meier, director of the alcohol research group at the University of Sheffield, said a 50p minimum price would, in time, result in 120 fewer deaths and 2,000 fewer hospital admissions form alcohol abuse each year.
Overall the response to the approval of the minimum unit price has been positive. Cancer Research UK’s cancer prevention expert Linda Bauld said: “Alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer including breast and bowel cancer, and the more you drink the greater your risk of cancer.”
Dr Peter Bennie, chairman of the British Medical Association Scotland, said: “As doctors we see every day the severe harm caused by alcohol misuse and the damage it causes to individuals and their families.
“There are no easy solutions, but minimum unit pricing can make a significant contribution to reducing these harms and saving lives.”
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