The Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy is due to be refreshed later this year and, with a new legislative programme due to be set out by the winners of next month’s Holyrood elections, there’s been inevitable speculation as to whether the trade might be faced with another raft of amendments to the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.
Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) has already set out a manifesto proposing a “national licensing authority” with powers to “enforce” the ‘public health’ licensing objective.
Such a body would be able to regulate the number, type and operating hours of alcohol-selling outlets.
That would doubtless lead to something approaching a moratorium on new licences and a cutback in off-sales hours.
Those steps would not be greeted with universal dismay.
But there’s positively no chance of licensing boards being deprived of these core powers – so I think we can readily assume that the plan is already dead in the water.
There are also further calls for tighter restrictions on alcohol advertising and marketing
– including an all-out ban on advertising except on licensed premises – and separate alcohol-only checkouts in supermarkets and other off-sales premises.
I’ve wondered whether the so-called ‘walk of shame’ might just gain some traction with MSPs.
After all, dedicated checkouts might seem a logical extension to the current restrictions on alcohol displays and in-store promotional materials.
But there’s not a single shred of evidence that forcing customers to take drinks purchases through a separate channel would have the slightest impact on buying habits.
In fact, there is evidence that the arrangement could actually drive up alcohol sales.
When Asda gave evidence to the Westminster government’s Health Committee in 2009 it pointed to a likely rebound effect because separate tills could actually make it easier for booze-buying shoppers to checkout more quickly. Instead of queuing behind fellow customers paying for a full shop, they would, in effect, be fast-tracked.
The real impact would be on the weekly shoppers purchasing a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer who would, of course, require to checkout twice.
There’s something of an irony here, because SHAAP’s position is that alcohol policy should be evidence-based with a focus on the approaches that have the best potential to prevent and reduce harm to individuals and communities.
In fact, the checkouts proposal is all about removing the perception that alcohol is “an ordinary commodity”.
I confess to some empathy with that approach, but it’s just as flawed as the view that alcohol should be banned from filling station shops on the view that it creates an acceptable association between drinking and driving.
The notion that a motorist might purchase alcohol for immediate consumption behind the wheel is as unlikely as the motorist visiting an off-sales shop, parking, returning to his or her car and proceeding to consume the purchase.
The outgoing Scottish Government also took the view that alcohol-only checkouts would be unduly onerous to no good purpose.
During the passage of the Air Weapons and Licensing Bill, the head of the licensing team told the Local Government and Regeneration Committee that “the impact on the public and the trade would be to create considerable inconvenience to the responsible trade and responsible drinkers, without strong evidence that it would reduce alcohol misuse”.
Incidentally, there was an attempt to legislate for dedicated alcohol tills in a private member’s Bill back in 1989.
A Scottish Labour MP, Jimmy Hood, believed that so-called “authorisation points” would be a valuable weapon against underage purchases.
I suppose there was at least some merit in the idea, but the Bill didn’t manage to cross the finishing line.
It suffered severe damage in the House of Lords, leading the pro-Bill Daily Record to exclaim that some English peers were “off their trolleys”.
Instead, legislation was introduced requiring alcohol sales by under-18 cashiers to be authorised.