More regulation not the best medicine

Current alcohol controls a stepping stone to tougher measures?

• Is alcohol next in the Scottish Government’s sights, post smoking ban?

By Jack Cummins

THE smoking ban introduced just over seven years ago dealt a hammer blow to the on-trade but, in no time at all, Andy Kerr, the then Holyrood health minister, made it clear that alcohol was next on the “to do” list.

Scotland, he said, was “in the foothills of the discussion we have now had on smoking”.
There followed calls for parents to stop drinking in front of young children, a ban on children’s football strips with alcohol branding, and separate alcohol checkouts in supermarkets.
We’ve also seen a raft of reforms to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, including new controls on off-sale promotions, and there are even more significant amendments on the horizon.

From controls on the pricing of alcohol, it’s a short leap towards stiffer measures.

Even specialist licensing lawyers spend a lot of energy keeping up with the seemingly endless changes and tinkering.
In the background sits the Minimum Pricing Act, currently mired in a heavyweight legal challenge.
Meanwhile, having succeeded in passing tobacco display legislation and a ban on cigarette vending machines after court scuffles with Imperial Tobacco and Sinclair Collis, the Scottish Government has declared an intention to introduce plain cigarette packaging.
What is that designed to achieve? As SGF chief executive John Drummond said in a recent letter to the Scotsman, it’s a complete waste of time: plain packaging will do absolutely nothing to stem ‘proxy purchasing’, nor will it address the illegal trade in smuggled and counterfeit tobacco products.
There’s bound to be more to follow.
A ban on ‘smoking and driving’ cannot be far away and I really believe Scotland may yet see a New York-style clampdown on outdoor smoking.
When it comes to tobacco, the government is on pretty safe ground: we’ll never see a ‘please smoke responsibly’ message on a cigarette packet, nor will medics recommend safe smoking guidelines.
But don’t believe for a moment that this constant appetite for regulation leaves responsible drinkers and alcohol retailers in a safe zone.
As health secretary Alex Neil inevitably acknowledged a couple of weeks ago, the minimum pricing legislation looks set for a showdown with its opponents in the European Court of Justice.
Mr Neil is very confident that the Scottish Government will, as he put it, “win hands down”.
I reckon that level of confidence is misplaced. But let’s suppose that the government emerges victorious.
The currently proposed minimum price is 50p per unit.
Be absolutely certain that’s just the start. In no time at all we’d be seeing “evidence” that a substantial hike is required.
Writing in SLTN a year ago, Ian Payne, chairman of the Stonegate pub company, made precisely the same point: “It is not inconceivable that a minimum price of 50p in 2014 could be £4.50 in 2026.
“If that seems fanciful, how many people in the year 2000 would have believed that a packet of cigarettes could cost £8.50.”
None of this analysis is intended in any way to diminish the importance of proper, proportionate – and most importantly – evidence-based alcohol licensing legislation.
But controls starting to look like outright puritanism are another matter, and it’s not difficult to see where the current trend may easily lead us if all sections of the trade fail to marshal their forces.
From the controls on the display, packaging, pricing, availability, promotion and advertising of alcohol and tobacco products, it’s a short leap towards stiffer measures.
Plain alcohol packaging and labelling? Bottles and cans of alcohol carrying images of cirrhosed livers rather than diseased lungs? Yet more controls on alcohol displays, possibly even tobacco-style cabinets? ‘Shame lanes’ in shops for alcohol purchasers?
It’s time for the health lobby – which has a major influence on Scottish Government policy – to recognise that responsible operators and the vast preponderance of Scots who drink responsibly now risk being overdosed with their medicine.

Image – Is alcohol next in the Scottish Government’s sights, post smoking ban?

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained on this page or elsewhere in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.