Reducing harm caused by alcohol

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Last Christmas for heavily discounted alcohol

Popping in to my local supermarket in early November, I noticed the spooky Halloween display advertising special offers on spirits had been seamlessly replaced with a Christmassy snowflake. The cheap booze offers remained the same, only the occasion had been changed.

No occasion, event or holiday is ignored by alcohol producers and retailers and Christmas is the biggest money-maker of all. The alcohol industry relies on those of us who drink too much to boost their profits – if we all drank in moderation, their profits would plummet.

This is the time of year when the licensed trade enjoy their busiest time with office nights out, catching up with old friends and family get-togethers. Supermarkets use every opportunity to increase footfall with special offers on beers, wines and spirits. You would be forgiven for thinking that stocking up on cheap booze is the only way to ensure a good time, or the only present worth giving, but this time of year isn’t a bright and happy one for everybody.

Not a happy Christmas for everyone

Spare a thought for people who have alcohol problems or who have been through treatment and are trying to stay sober. The pressure to drink is everywhere and people who struggle with their drinking can give in to temptation and experience a relapse. This can be an especially tough time of year for them and their families, with emotions running high, strained relationships and some people facing a lonely day without any family or friends at all. Heavy drinking can tear families apart and sadly, over a thousand families will be facing their first Christmas without a loved one who has died because of alcohol this year.

Television adverts are full of happy couples and families clinking glasses of champagne and mulled wine; a far cry from the alcohol-fuelled mayhem that the emergency services have to deal with as nights out (and in) end in hospitals and police cells. Shifts during the festive season for police, paramedics, doctors and nurses are busier than ever and dealing with people who have had too much alcohol makes a difficult job even harder.

It isn’t just young people who get into vulnerable situations when drunk. Alcohol-related illness and injury, regretted behaviour, and falling out with friends, family and colleagues are risks for anyone who drinks too much. The consequences could last longer and be more serious than a sore head in the morning.

Minimum unit pricing

Thankfully, Scotland has recognised the need to tackle the scourge of cheap, strong alcohol and from 1 May next year, shops and supermarkets won’t be able to sell alcohol for less than 50p per unit. The principle behind minimum unit pricing is simply to reduce the harm caused by the strongest and cheapest drinks on the market. Drinks in pubs and restaurants won’t be affected at all as they already cost more than 50p per unit.

From May 2018, shops and supermarkets, a bottle of wine at 12% abv will have to cost at least £4.50 and four 440ml cans of lager at 5% strength (abv) will cost £4.40. It’s the strong white ciders which will see the biggest increase in price - a three litre bottle of strong cider at 7.5% abv will have to cost at least £11.25. Currently, this can be bought from off-licences for just £3.99. The beauty of minimum unit pricing is that moderate drinkers won’t notice any difference to what they spend on alcohol but the policy will have a big impact on the heaviest drinkers.

Although minimum pricing was passed by the Scottish Parliament back in 2012, it was blocked by a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Representing some of the biggest alcohol producers in the world, they argued that the policy was illegal, restricted trade, punished responsible drinkers, and generally that it wouldn’t work. They took their case all the way to the UK Supreme Court which dismissed their appeal, ruling that the proposed minimum price policy is appropriately targeted, lawful and proportionate.

In the five years since minimum pricing was passed, alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in Scotland have increased. Latest figures show there are an average of 100 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 24 deaths every single week in Scotland.

In the first five years, it’s estimated that minimum pricing will prevent 392 deaths and 8,254 hospital admissions in Scotland. Sadly, because the SWA took the Scottish Government to court, for many people it’s too late.

Thankfully this will be the last Christmas of ridiculously cheap deals on the strong alcohol that causes so much harm to health, families and communities across Scotland. That’s something we can all celebrate.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland