Off-trade is not the only target

Health lobby is equally interested in curbing on-trade alcohol sales

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

WHILE the Scottish licensed trade and licensing boards are being denied a review of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 and the innumerable amendments, a House of Lords committee has surveyed the Licensing Act 2003 – concluding that it’s “fundamentally flawed” and in need of “a major overhaul”.

There’s also real discontent about the way in which the 2003 Act is administered, with evidence suggesting that decisions are “something of a lottery” leading to significant inconsistencies among local licensing committees (that, incidentally, is a major criticism of the Scottish system repeatedly expressed by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association).

Some of the committee’s recommendations look to Scotland for inspiration: for example, the introduction of minimum pricing (if it’s shown to work north of the border); a ban on multi-buy offers; shorter off-sales hours (bearing in mind there’s no “10am until 10pm” restriction in England and Wales); and a requirement for disabled access statements (although that requirement, although enacted, hasn’t yet been brought into force in Scotland).
But there’s a real irony here.

Short of a parliamentary review of the 2005 Act, do we really know whether it’s fit for its purpose?
If minimum pricing is eventually implemented, Scottish ministers will be obliged after five years to produce a report on its operation and effect.

Why no report on the ‘operation and effect’ of the current legislation?
I’m not aware of any clear evidence that the multi-buy bans have changed purchasing habits to the benefit of the nation’s health, nor has there been any attempt to evaluate the effect, if any, of the shorter off-sale hours on problem drinking.

There are those who seek to heap onerous change on the trade.

Let me offer you another irony.
Despite this wholly unsatisfactory background, there are those who would seek to heap more onerous change on the trade.

It seems that not a week passes without another call for action in the war against alcohol.

The latest set of ‘recommendations’, published by Alcohol Focus Scotland and other public health bodies, comes ahead of the imminent refresh of the Scottish Government’s alcohol strategy.

The report – already criticised for using out of date health data (SLTN, April 27) – contains a wish list running to over two pages and includes around 12 proposals which could only be implemented by means of yet more new legislation.

• The on-trade will not be exempt from health lobby ‘recommendations’.

These include the prohibition of all price discounting; a requirement for licence applicants to provide “alcohol sales data” (presumably a forecast which might have little value); and a restriction on certain types of appeals against licensing board decisions.

There’s even a suggestion that the Scottish Government should “review the appropriateness of rules exempting forms of transport from requiring an alcohol licence”.

Of course, in the usual way, there is some emphasis on the off-trade: the publication notes that around 74% of alcohol is bought from that sector.

But there’s also a call for a ban on licensed premises displaying “outdoor promotional materials advertising alcohol”.

This is a war on alcohol; the off-trade is not the only target.

Since off-sales are already subject to external alcohol advertising restrictions, this would presumably mean saying goodbye to some types of on-trade marketing, such as alcohol-branded umbrellas in pub and hotel beer gardens.

Looking at the thrust of the recommendations as a whole, it’s simply not safe for the on-trade to sit back and assume that they can opt to be non-combatants in this war.

That’s because it’s a war on alcohol, not where alcohol is sold. It’s a war on the substance that, we’re told by the health lobbyists, is a carcinogen and which can’t safely be consumed in any amount.

Ultimately, it’s a war on all alcohol producers and retailers – and you can be absolutely sure that the off-trade is not the only target.

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