Minimum unit pricing in Scotland: Parliament agrees, global alcohol producers challenge.

Dr Peter Rice, Chair, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems
Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

David Miller and Claire Harkins’ ALICE RAP blog of 21st May outlines the potential content and process of a legal challenge to Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). MUP was passed into law by the Scottish Parliament on 24th May with an MUP of 50p, and is due to come into force in April 2013. In July the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) confirmed their intention to challenge the legislation, which was passed without opposition in Parliament, in both the Scottish and European courts. The question was never whether there would be a legal challenge, but who would front the challenge. It is now clear that with the Scotch Whisky Association’s initiative, publicly supported by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, the European Spirits Association and the Brewers of Europe, the major global alcohol producers, are working together to oppose this legislation.

The context within which this challenge is taking place needs to be understood if public health advocates in other countries are to learn from the Scottish experience.

The MUP debate started in Scotland following publication of a report in 2008, Alcohol Price, Policy and Public Health, by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), an advocacy group established by the Medical and Nursing Royal Colleges in Scotland. This report addressed the legal position based on commissioned legal advice. The Scottish Government has also sought legal opinion during the legislative process.

Public health advocates used the MUP debate to challenge the industry frame of alcohol problems that most people drink responsibly, and only a minority misuse alcohol, therefore policy efforts should be targeted at the “irresponsible minority.” Consequently, the stated policy objective of the Scottish Government, of which MUP legislation is part, is to reduce overall alcohol consumption in the population in order to reduce harm. It is not the MUP policy per se that worries the major global producers, but what it signifies. MUP provides a clear statement that legislators do not regard alcohol as an ordinary commodity and believe that it needs to be regulated to protect the public interest.

The effect of these advocacy efforts is evident in the public response to the Scotch Whisky Association's announcement of their plans.

Magnus Linklater, former editor of the Times in Scotland said:
“This (the SWA's action) is dangerous. It lays the industry open to the charge that it sees itself as a better representative of the national interest than those who have been elected to defend it ... There is a critical difference between the two sides here. One was elected on a manifesto to improve the nation’s health. The other was elected by nobody.

Faced with a choice between improved exports for a wealthy industry, and combating the diseases that make so many lives a misery, Scots will know which side they are on.”

Gillian Bowditch wrote in the Sunday Times :
“By proceeding with this legal challenge, the SWA is in danger of being seen as a cynical peddler of cheap booze with little thought for the health and well-being of its customers.
If Big Alcohol challenges Sturgeon (Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Health Secretary) in court and wins, it may find it is a pyrrhic victory.
My advice to the Scotch Whisky Association? Think responsibly.”

Finally, Lesley Riddoch writing in The Scotsman said;
“In deciding to oppose minimum pricing in the Court of Session and European Commission, the SWA has revealed the drinks industry in its true profit-focused colours and may have made an untimely gaffe...
Public opinion is on the move – and the drinks industry is being left behind. Of course the big companies are still happy to “work in partnership” on schools projects or glossy advice leaflets to tackle problem drinking. Consider what a gamble the SWA board has taken with the reputation of its members...
Even though minimum pricing was included in that same manifesto, the Scottish drinks industry thinks it can oppose the government’s right to legislate – against the will of the Scottish Parliament, the process of electoral democracy and perhaps the grain of public opinion...
Minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland is not just a little local skirmish about booze. It’s an international battle about the forces of globalisation against the power of individual states to protect the health of their citizens. It’s free trade versus the re-regulation of public life in the wake of scandalously damaging decades of laissez faire.”
These media responses indicate the scale of the change in the nature of the public discourse on alcohol in Scotland and growth of support for a policy approach which includes action on price. There is heightened public awareness of the extent of alcohol related harm and policies that are likely to be effective and this can only help in a legal process which will ultimately be balancing public health and free trade interests.