Soon, alcohol to be dearer in Scotland

The minimum price of alcohol in Scotland is set to increase by 30% as part of efforts to tackle alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations. Ministers in Edinburgh are expected to confirm that the minimum unit price for alcohol will rise from 50p to 65p in early May, making it the first increase in six years since Scotland initially implemented the policy. This move comes amid concerns about a 25% rise in alcohol-related deaths over the past three years, coupled with a 40% decline in the number of people using alcohol treatment services in the last decade.

Last year, Public Health Scotland reported that minimum pricing had been associated with a 13.5% reduction in deaths entirely linked to alcohol, compared to the expected death rate without the policy. However, the current surge in alcohol-related deaths has intensified the pressure on ministers to take further action.

The proposed 65p minimum unit price is seen as a positive step by health campaigners, who have advocated for an increase to keep pace with inflation and maintain the effectiveness of the policy in curbing the sale of cheap alcohol. If implemented, the cost of a standard bottle of whisky in Scotland would rise from £14 to £18.20, vodka to £16.90, and a four-pack of basic lager to £4.58.

While health campaigners welcome the move, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association plans to call for the scrapping of minimum pricing, arguing that it is an ineffective and unfair approach to combat alcohol abuse, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. Scottish Labour supports the policy but has suggested an additional alcohol levy on retailers to tax the unearned profits resulting from minimum pricing, with the proceeds directed towards the NHS and addiction combat efforts.

Research estimates that retailers make around £30 million annually in excess profits due to the difference between the minimum price and the wholesale cost of drinks. A proposed levy, similar to one imposed between 2012 and 2015, could raise £57 million per year, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute for Alcohol Focus Scotland.

Minimum pricing was first proposed by the Scottish National Party in 2008 to address the escalating issue of alcohol-related deaths and binge-drinking. The policy faced legal challenges but was ultimately upheld by the UK supreme court in 2017, ruling it as a proportionate and lawful means of achieving a legitimate health aim.

Despite the positive impact attributed to minimum pricing in reducing alcohol-related deaths, the recent surge in such fatalities has prompted Scottish authorities to reassess and increase the minimum unit price. The move reflects a commitment to addressing ongoing public health concerns related to alcohol misuse, particularly in light of the recent challenges faced in Scotland.

Health campaigners applaud the decision to raise the minimum unit price to 65p, as it not only aligns with inflation but also serves as a proactive measure to counteract the persistent issue of cheap alcohol sales. The proposed price adjustments for various alcoholic beverages are aimed at discouraging excessive drinking while generating additional revenue that can be directed toward public health initiatives and addiction treatment services.

However, opposition to minimum pricing persists, with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association advocating for its complete elimination. The argument centers around the belief that alternative, more targeted measures could be more effective in addressing alcohol abuse without penalizing responsible drinkers. This debate underscores the complex challenge of finding a balance between public health measures and individual liberties.

Scottish Labour’s proposal for an additional alcohol levy on retailers aims to ensure that unearned profits resulting from minimum pricing contribute directly to the healthcare system and anti-addiction efforts. The potential revenue generated from such a levy could significantly impact the funding available for combating the public health emergency posed by alcohol-related deaths.

As the discussions continue, the Fraser of Allander Institute’s research sheds light on the financial aspects of minimum pricing, emphasizing the excess profits made by retailers. This information adds weight to the argument for a levy, drawing parallels to a previous public health supplement imposed on supermarkets, which successfully raised substantial funds.

The broader context of these developments lies in Scotland’s pioneering efforts to address alcohol-related harm through innovative policies. The journey began in 2008 with the proposal of minimum pricing by the Scottish National Party, leading to legal battles and eventual validation by the UK supreme court in 2017. The ongoing commitment to refining and adapting these measures reflects a determination to tackle evolving public health challenges and prioritize the well-being of the Scottish population.

As the new minimum unit price takes effect, ongoing evaluation and adjustments will likely be crucial in assessing its impact on alcohol-related harm and public health outcomes. The outcome of these measures could influence policy discussions not only within Scotland but also in other regions grappling with similar public health concerns related to alcohol misuse.

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