Scotland's drink problem
DEEP down, we all know Scotland has a drink problem. But what are you prepared to do about it?
This must be the starting point for us all this week as we consider proposals to be brought forward by Kenny MacAskill, our crusading Justice Secretary. MacAskill has taken it upon himself to make Scots wake up to the high price of our drink culture.
He has already taken steps to end “irresponsible promotions” in pubs, such as happy hours, and attracted flak for other ideas he has floated, several of which will be in Tuesday’s consultation document. As we report today, it will consider raising the age limit for buying alcohol in off-sales to 21, and a ban on two-for-ones and other promotions in such shops. It will raise the prospect of minimum prices and restrictions on where alcohol can be sold in supermarkets, while pubs and off-sales may have to help fund policing.
In short, the way we buy and consume alcohol is about to change forever. Just last month, a Scottish Government report estimated the cost of alcohol misuse at £2.25bn, with the NHS alone footing a £400m bill each year. According to Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, this is largely because 28,000 victims of drink-related violence have to be treated in Accident & Emergency units each year. The bottom line is that at least six Scots die every day through causes related to alcohol.
So, to repeat: Scotland has a drink problem, but what – if anything – do we want to do about it? This newspaper has previously taken MacAskill to task for interfering with the freedom of choice that we still believe should be enjoyed by the vast majority of Scots who drink sensibly and safely. We warned against using bans, blunt weapons which punish the innocent many to tackle the disruptive few. And we remain wary of many of the measures likely to be unveiled formally on Tuesday. We do not think it is the state’s role to interfere with the cost of alcohol, either via promotions or minimum prices. It is easy to trot out figures which show that discounted lager is cheaper than water in supermarkets (more fool those who buy either budget lager or designer H2O, we say). But what is the point, and what gives government ministers the right, to determine whether or not consumers should get three bottles of Rioja for the price of two? When hoodies start clubbing together to swig a bottle of Laphroaig on the streets, there may be a case for interference at that level. Until then, MacAskill should be more forensic in his efforts. Other measures fit the category of “pointless but harmless”, such as ghettoising sales of alcohol in supermarkets. No one will really be troubled by having to go to a specific aisle to buy alcohol. It may even make it easier for shops to police sales. But this is a gimmick – nothing more, nothing less.
And what of perhaps the most adventurous part of the MacAskill plan: raising the off-sales age limit to 21? There is a danger that this will confuse the message for young people, who will still be allowed to drink in pubs at 18. A tiny West Lothian pilot appears to have been a success, and there is more compelling evidence from abroad that it discourages youngsters from boozing on the streets and, as a result, cuts public order offences. But this also is a blunt tool: why should a 20-year-old, who is old enough to vote, have sex and get married, be stopped from buying – and enjoying – a bottle of wine with a meal?
Pubs and off-licences will disagree, but the “polluter pays” idea is a good one. If licensees have to contribute towards the cost of policing the streets on a Friday and Saturday night then they might get better at refusing to serve people who are already intoxicated – as they are already legally required to do. We also believe those who abuse alcohol and then go on to commit crimes should be punished severely through a properly funded and staffed police and criminal justice system. A starting point for any crackdown on alcohol should be the proper implementation of existing laws. While it is a measure for Westminster rather than Holyrood, we are also behind any move to bring UK drink-drive laws into line with lower alcohol levels elsewhere in Europe.
It is time for a different approach to drink. We applaud MacAskill’s bravery in confronting Scots about what is arguably our nation’s biggest social problem. The fact that alcohol is also arguably our biggest social pleasure is why it is so controversial.