Scotland will become the first country in the world to impose a minimum price per unit of alcohol. World first? I'll drink to that. Right now. Before they put the prices up.
The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 was passed by the Scottish parliament over five years ago but has not yet been implemented due to a protracted legal challenge headed by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). The SWA argued that the 2012 act breaches EU law in relation to free movement of goods, specifically, Article 34 of the snappily titled 'Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union' (TFEU) which prohibits quantitative restrictions on imports. The Scottish government accepted the appellant's contention that 'minimum pricing will affect the market and EU trade in alcohol' but argued that it was 'justified on grounds of ...the protection of health and life of humans,' a derogation possible under Article 36 TFEU.
Just to make sure the issue is not overly easy to understand, wine is regulated under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) at article 39 TFEU and regulation (EU) no 1308/2013 establishing a common organisation of the markets in agricultural products, termed the 'single CMO regulation'. Phew. After attempting to make sense of all that I need a double CMO regulation, thanks. And you thought Brexit was complicated.
The case was finally concluded in the UK Supreme Court on 15 November 2017 when judgement was given that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and, hence, the 2012 act does not breach EU law. The key consideration for the court was the EU law principle of proportionality. In order to derogate from article 34, the CAP, and the principles of 'free formation of prices' in the single CMO regulation, the European Court of Justice advised that 'the measure must be appropriate for attaining the objective pursued, and must not go beyond what is necessary to attain that objective,' with the onus on the member state to evidence this. The main evidence the Scottish government relied upon was a 2016 report it commissioned from the University of Sheffield on the comparative efficacy of MUP and taxation as a way of regulating consumption.
The Supreme Court accepted the Sheffield report's conclusions that MUP is more effective than a tax or excise duty because it specifically targets 'hazardous and harmful' drinkers and would not allow shops to discount alcohol below cost price to attract in customers. They also accepted that MUP will interfere in the EU market but concluded that this consideration should not outweigh the intended health benefits.
Karen Betts, chief executive of the SWA, said they would accept the decision. Sorry? The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal so they have no choice but to accept the decision. Nobody said they had to like it. I didn't like Laphroaig when I first tried it but I still graciously accepted another wee dram. Or two. Ms Betts also stated that, 'It was in the public interest to test the law.' That's very public spirited of them. And to think I had cynically assumed that the SWA were just pursuing their own self-interest.
MUP is due to be implemented on 1 May 2018. Before then, the government are holding a public consultation on the proposed price of 50p per unit. I thought I would undertake my own consultation on the matter. In the pub. Over a few pints. Tough job. My research was of a qualitative nature with interviews based on an entirely random sample of people who just happened to be in my local in Glasgow's east end at the time, and who didn't overly object to me interrupting the important matters of football and religion. Alongside, I canvassed the opinion of family and friends.
There was a lot of opposition: 'It's an outrage
'; 'If people want to drink they'll find a way'; 'It's unfair to whisky producers'; 'It's a tax on the poor'. Some, however, were supportive and considered it a good idea: 'If it works' or 'If it stops the hooligans.' Another thought it might deter youngsters: 'If it discourages my son or yours from drinking I'm all for it.' One person remarked that it 'Should've been done 60 years ago.'
Some expressed sympathy with those who are alcohol dependant: 'People have a need, they will be forced to detox and could go into shock'; 'It's a disease like mental health'; 'Alcoholics will be more unhealthy as they won't have money to buy nutritious foods too.' The landlady opined that it might help the pub trade, and hence she was in favour, but one customer thought 'It's unfair to drinkers because we pay loads of tax.' Some were non-committal: 'There's ayes and naws' and others less so: 'It's ***** and that Nicola Sturgeon is an interfering *****.' I think he might have had one too many cheap drinks.
Many respondents worried it would lead to an increase in crime committed by those desperate enough to get alcohol they could no longer afford, or an increase in the sale of 'bootleg booze.' According to Alcohol Focus Scotland, however, there is no real evidence to support a hypothesis that dependent drinkers will turn to stealing or illicit alcohol.
Another issue people repeatedly mentioned was cross-border sales. Will people travel to England and bring back a car-load of cheap alcohol? Or stock up when they are there visiting family or friends anyway? Bizarrely, the Scottish government makes no reference to either matter. Whilst reference is made in earlier University of Sheffield MUP reports to a reduction in work absenteeism and alcohol-related crime in general as consumption decreases, it does not make any reference to the likelihood of an increase in crime committed by those desperate enough to get alcohol they can no longer afford. Curious.
To remove the incentive for cross-border sales, the Republic of Ireland has delayed the introduction of MUP and hopes to implement it simultaneously with Northern Ireland. The Welsh government has introduced a bill for MUP but there are currently no plans to do so in England. In 2013, David Cameron backed down on the issue, reportedly after intense lobbying from the drinks industry. Obviously, should this position change in future, cross-border sales will no longer be an issue.
The 2016 Sheffield report concludes that MUP will reduce consumption amongst harmful drinkers because it targets the cheap, high-strength alcohol purchased most by the heaviest drinkers. Moderate drinkers will be only minimally affected and alcohol sold in the on-trade, for example pubs and restaurants, will be almost entirely unaffected. Most notably, the report claims that a '50p MUP is estimated to lead to 2,036 fewer deaths and 38,859 hospitalisations during the first 20 years of the policy' and subsequently 'an estimated 121 fewer deaths and 2,042 fewer hospital admissions per year.' Worked out by a combination of an econometric evaluation of consumer response to price change and epidemiological data on levels of consumption and risk of harm, such bold claims are undoubtedly open to scrutiny.
But the Supreme Court is right. MUP is 'experimental' and somewhat 'unpredictable'. The policy is, however, directly related to its stated aim of reducing hazardous and harmful drinking and there is strong evidence from a reputable source in support. Contrast, for example, the public drinking byelaws. These were introduced, with the explicit encouragement of Scottish governments past and present, by, ultimately, all local authorities in Scotland, none of which provided any evidence of how prohibiting drinking outside would address harmful consumption or associated anti-social behaviour. In reality, the byelaws merely serve, and indeed were intended, to hide 'undesirable' types, for example homeless alcoholics, from public view. MUP, on the other hand, is specifically targeted towards tackling harmful drinking and is a small price to literally pay if the positive health outcomes are anywhere near those projected.
I'm sold. I think it's a good idea. In fact, I'll drink to it. Right now. Before they put the prices up.