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Artillery Row

Expensive booze pushes Scots towards drugs

Sturgeon’s alcohol policy is her latest failure

Now that COP26 has ended, the hangover from Nicola Sturgeon’s addiction to the conference limelight at the expense of doing her day job should be kicking in. A couple of Alka Seltzer will not be enough to cure a thumping headache as the First Minister faces up to the realisation her flagship public health policy of setting minimum alcohol unit prices is the failure so many warned her about. 

A report by the National Institute for Health Research, for her Public Health Scotland, has revealed there are now more victims of alcohol abuse than before her legislation was introduced three years ago. Deaths from alcohol increased in 2020 by a staggering 17 per cent against such deaths the previous year, higher than the deaths from drugs that increased by 5 per cent.

Alcohol and drug related problems have worsened

The study into the impact of the indiscriminate price fixing, based on evidence from hospital emergency departments, reported “no strong evidence that minimum unit pricing had reduced alcohol consumption or harm” after comparing admissions to hospitals in Scotland with those in England. The study follows a previous report by Manchester Metropolitan University that found alcohol-related crime was already falling when the legislation was enforced, and that it did not change the trajectory.

Before analysing the details, a little history will give context. When Nicola Sturgeon was Alex Salmond’s Health Secretary, she introduced a Bill for setting a minimum purchase price per alcohol unit for off-sales. The theory was that duties and VAT levied by HM Treasury did not deter heavy or casual drinkers from consuming large amounts of alcohol and this could be changed by setting new minimum levels. Advocates originally suggested 40p per unit but this eventually rose to 50p when it became law, although the more strident supporters were disappointed that their calls for 65p or even 70p a unit were not enacted. The aim was to raise the price of low cost ciders and own-brand spirits or other cheap but strong drinks to deter consumption. 

Ironically the price of Buckfast tonic wine, identified as a popular drink among young street drinkers, was not affected because its price was already higher than the minimum. 

Various claims were made in defence of the policy, including it would help hardened alcoholics to reduce their dependency; it would even out health inequalities and lead to a reduction in alcohol-related illness and crime. There is no evidence to support any of these claims being realised, but there is evidence that alcohol and drug related problems have actually worsened.

Border booze trips began almost immediately

Another justification was the fallacy that low taxes had helped alcohol become cheap but taxes hadn’t fallen; they had in fact increased, especially on beer. The reality was that until the recession in 2008, disposable income grew faster than alcohol taxes. Indiscriminate price fixing affects people indiscriminately. It doesn’t target those with alcohol problems or those who display anti-social behaviour.

Although the legislation was originally approved in 2012 it was not introduced until 2018 due to a court action led by the Scotch Whisky Association, who argued it was beyond the powers of the Holyrood parliament as it restricted competitive trade. There was no tax involved; it simply meant there was a minimum price that must be charged and the beneficiaries would be the supermarkets or other retailers (estimated at £125m windfall profit).

Opposition politicians warned it would not have the desired effect but simply punish ordinary consumers for the actions of a minority who would anyhow just pay up or find alternatives. Border booze trips began almost immediately with staff at supermarkets in Carlisle and Berwick reporting growing numbers of Scots buying stocks of alcohol in special trips or when driving past on the M6 and A1. Social media was replete with photos of car boots laden with booze.

When I wrote The McNanny State in 2018 I predicted the entry minimum price of 50p per unit would only be the beginning, and now we are seeing the calls for a significant increase. Raising the unit price from 50p to 65p would have a standard strength bottle of gin, vodka or whisky go from £14 to £18.20, with a £5 bottle wine rising to £6.50 and a six pack of standard lager going from £6 to £7.80. There are already other legal restrictions in Scotland banning discount promotions such as three for the price of two.

Scotland is the drug death capital of Europe

Worse than the official figures is the growing anecdotal evidence of how young drinkers are abandoning their cider or vodka and switching to cheaper drugs such as “Street Benzos” at 50p a hit. Field workers and clinical specialists report underfunded drug addiction services are being overstretched by the increase in use of Benzodiazepine pills that are 40 times stronger than Valium. These pills, manufactured by the million in illegal local drug factories, were reported in 2018 as featuring in 782 of the 1187 deaths two-thirds of Scotland’s record drug fatalities, the highest in Europe.  

Since 2013 drug deaths have continued to increase year-on-year, reaching a shameful 1,339 deaths in 2020: an average of over 25 funerals a week or nearly 4 a day for families in Scotland. The Scottish death rate from drugs is 15 times worse than Germany and 35 times worse than France and three-and-a-half times the drug deaths in the UK as a whole yet England and Wales operate under the same drug legislation as Scotland. Under the SNP, Scotland is the undisputed drug death capital of Europe.

Always seeking to be different from England, in 2014 the SNP also lowered the level of alcohol in blood for drink driving offences from 80mg in 100ml of blood to the common standard across most of Europe of 50mg in 100ml. The result was pubs suffered a 55 per cent fall in like-for-like sales, and food sales dropped by 38 per cent. Pub closures followed, but it was all to no avail as the figures for drink-driving offences and related accidents, including fatalities, did not bring a corresponding improvement. What had been an existing trend of falling numbers before the tighter drink-driving law either plateaued or grew. 

Be it alcohol or drugs, the puritanical policies of Nicola Sturgeon are failing to justify the headlines she sought. That would be enough to give anyone a hangover, but Sturgeon will double down expect higher prices and more restrictions in her puritanical playpen.

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