Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Minimum pricing will save lives

This week, the UK Supreme Court will hear the Scotch Whisky Association’s final appeal against minimum pricing for alcohol.

We hope that it will finally be given the green light, more than 5 years since the legislation was passed by the Scottish Parliament, and having been tested in Europe and twice declared legal by Scottish courts.

Minimum pricing came about in response to soaring alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths in Scotland. In the 1980s, there were around 600 alcohol-related deaths per year – by the mid-2000s this had increased to 1500. Right now, an average of 22 Scots die because of alcohol every single week.

The more affordable and easily available a product is, the more it is consumed. Alcohol is now 60% more affordable than it was in 1980, as shops compete to lure customers in with ridiculously cheap prices and promotions. This has led to a huge shift from pub to home drinking.

Minimum unit pricing directly links the price of drinks to their strength and sets a ‘floor price’ below which a unit of alcohol can’t be sold. Under minimum pricing, a pint in the pub won’t cost any more but certain products on supermarkets and corner shops’ shelves will cost much more than they do today. For example, 3 litre bottles of “White Ace” and “Frosty Jack’s” cider at 7.5% abv are on sale for just £3.99.  One bottle contains 22 units of alcohol - this works out at just 18p per unit. Under a 50p minimum price, that bottle of cider would cost at least £11.25.

Doctors and those working in addiction services say heavy drinkers, particularly dependent drinkers, rely on very cheap alcohol. One of the arguments pushed by the industry is that minimum pricing “punishes” the poor. “On the contrary..” as 40 GPs working in our most disadvantaged communities put it in a recent letter to the Herald “...they have most to gain. The implementation of minimum unit pricing in Scotland will bring about positive and lasting change, especially for the people and communities with whom we work.” 

So what have we learned in the decade that we have been campaigning for minimum pricing? That our politicians will listen to experts about what works and are willing to take bold measures to improve public health. That there is a groundswell of support for action to get rid of cheap, strong alcohol that causes so much damage. But also, that big business will be ruthless in protecting their profits, even at the expense of people’s lives. Multi-national companies are prepared to misrepresent the evidence and obstruct democratic decisions, often hiding behind trade associations to do so.

Preventing alcohol harm requires regulation not simply education. Alcohol producers and retailers need to accept that the products they make and sell are toxic, addictive and carcinogenic so it’s absolutely right that controls are in place to minimise the harm caused.

Cheap alcohol has been taking its toll for too long. We all know someone whose life has been cut short, a family that’s broken up, or someone who has had an accident or been assaulted because of alcohol. In the first year alone, a 50p minimum unit price could prevent 60 alcohol-related deaths, 1,600 hospital admissions and 3,500 crimes.

We don’t want Scotland to be known for heavy drinking. That’s not something to be proud of. We should be known for our progressive approach to improving health, creating better communities, and reducing inequalities. Minimum unit pricing is the biggest public health breakthrough since the ban on smoking in public places. It will save many lives and improve many more.

Alison Douglas
Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland