Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has described alcohol as one of his nation’s biggest demons. It is estimated that it takes some 3,000 lives annually in Scotland, and costs the national economy some £3.5bn in hospital costs, reduced productivity and criminality.
Now Scotland is poised to become the first country in Europe to deliver a minimum price for alcohol, in an attempt to lower consumption and reverse these worrying statistics.
The policy was first introduced by the SNP back in 2008. Then they were leaders in a minority government, and the proposal was voted down by the opposition. Today, the SNP are in majority government at Holyrood, and their landslide victory at the polls last May means that they are now in a position to implement the policy for the first time. It is thought the policy could become law by the summer.
The political tide has certainly changed in Scotland. In 2008, most of the major parties opposed the policy. However, as time has gone on, many have been attracted to support it, including the Liberal Democrats south of the border in England, as well as now Scottish Lib Dems and now Scottish Conservatives.
There are some key issues which remain to be addressed. The first is at what level the current Scottish Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon intends to set the rate at. The UK Government has previously said in consultation that it favours a rate of 40p per unit. There is no discussion of the Scottish adopting this rate, however.
In 2008, a rate of 35p was touted, which would have seen the cost of cheap cider rise by some 71%, and the cost of a bottle of vodka increase from £9.50 to £13. It is now thought that she may set a rate as high as 45p or even 50p.
There is evidence that a recent ban on discounting of alcohol in shops has had an effect on binge drinking. The Alcohol Scotland Act came into effect last October.
There remains some controversy around the proposals, with some saying that a minimum price will simply translate to a windfall profit for shopkeepers and supermarkets. However, despite this alcohol remains a problem firmly within the sites of the Scottish executive.
As Mr Salmond said in a recent interview: “Scotland is the greatest country on earth as far as I’m concerned, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the shortcomings we have. How you judge a country, is how it copes with shortcomings.”
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