Many people in the UK believe that one of the best ways to tackle problem drinking is to impose a minimum unit price for alcohol. Critics think this would hurt sensible drinkers, but campaigners are of the opinion that it is only those who buy cheap alcohol who would be affected. And they also believe that the people who buy cheap alcohol are the ones who tend to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, which causes problems such as obesity, diabetes and addiction.
Minimum Unit Price
Scotland’s government has plans to do just that by bringing in a minimum unit price for alcohol. Its plans were backed up by a recent survey that found the current recommended weekly alcohol limit of fourteen units could be purchased for as little as Â£2.52, which is around the same price as a cup of coffee in a cafe.
The study, which was conducted by the charity Alcohol Focus Scotland, checked prices of various alcoholic beverages including vodka, lager, cider and wine. Prices were checked in convenience stores and supermarkets around Edinburgh and Glasgow. The shocking results showed that some alcohol can be purchased for just 18 pence per unit.
In 2012, MSPs passed legislation for a unit of alcohol to carry a minimum price of 50 pence. However, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has challenged this legislation, and the subsequent proceedings have delayed the introduction.
If the new legislation does come into force, it would see the cheapest bottle of wine raised to Â£4.69. Four cans of lager would increase to a minimum of Â£4, and the lowest price a bottle of 70cl whisky could be sold at would be Â£14.
The challenge by SWA centres on the fact that poorer drinkers would be affected. They have also said that this change was “beyond the power of the Scottish government”.
The study by Alcohol Focus Scotland found that when it comes to cheap alcohol in Scotland, cider is available at the lowest prices. A 7.5 per cent, three-litre bottle of cider was available for just Â£3.99 in one store; at this price, the fourteen-unit weekly limit would cost just Â£2.52. The charity said that cheap cider was available in every store it checked and was priced between eighteen pence and twenty-four pence per unit.
As well as cheap cider, other alcohol was also available at very low prices. Researchers found that vodka was available at thirty-six pence per unit, lager at twenty-six pence per unit, and wine at thirty-two pence per unit.
Alcohol Focus believes that the challenges mounted by SWA and other organisations over the past four years have “undoubtedly cost lives”. However, SWA lawyers are arguing that the government’s proposed minimum unit pricing for alcohol breaches EU free trade rules. Judges at the European Court of Justice ruled in December 2015 that free trade would be restricted by the introduction of minimum pricing per unit. However, the judges also said that it was, “ultimately for the national court to determine whether measures other than that provided for by the Scottish legislation, such as increased taxation on alcoholic drinks, are capable of protecting human life and health as effectively as the current legislation, while being less restrictive of trade in those products within the EU.”
The issues continue to be debated and will be presided over by three Scottish judges in the next few days. The judges will have to look at the body of evidence presented to them to determine whether there are other ways to improve public health. This could mean an introduction of a higher tax on alcohol. Whatever the ruling, it is unlikely that this will be the end of the matter as either losing party will be expected to appeal to the UK Supreme Court once the decision at the Court of Session has been made.