by Rab Bruce’s Spider

Yesterday saw the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) on alcohol. It has been a long time coming, but it is here at last. Needless to say, the media, led by the BBC, were quick to allow critics of the scheme their chance to repeat all the things they think are wrong with this legislation. There was also a fair amount of comment on Social media, with some online polls suggesting that a significant majority of people think it will make no difference to drinking habits.

As with most controversial policies, many people are happy to point out individual cases where the legislation is unlikely to have any impact. For example, I noticed several people saying that MUP will make no difference to alcoholics who will continue to get their fix no matter the price, and that this will be at the cost of cutting down on expenditure on things like food.

This is a perfectly reasonable point, but it rather misses the issue behind MUP. Alcoholics are already addicts and, just like people who are addicted to drugs, cigarettes or gambling, no amount of price increase will have much effect on their addiction.

The other main comment I noticed was the equally valid remark that MUP will have no effect on better off people who have a problem with alcohol. If they can afford to drink to excess, they will.

In response to these points, I would say that MUP is not intended to affect the drinking habits of these people. Addicts need help with their addiction, while the problem of the better off drinkers will be best addressed through education and altering what is socially acceptable. Those are long term issues and need to be seen as part of an overall attempt to alter Scotland’s well-known problem with alcohol.

It is, of course, impossible to ban alcohol altogether, as the Prohibition era in America proved. And, let’s face it, many of us like a drink now and again. Problems of excessive drinking among the better off can only be addressed by changes in social attitudes, while MUP is intended to address the issue of young people being able to obtain strong alcoholic drinks at low prices. Yes, there are some loopholes in the legislation, but we should not forget that it is a policy which is backed by medical experts.

According to the SNP, there are, on average, 22 deaths directly linked to alcohol every week, plus nearly 700 injuries. That is a damning indictment on the effects of alcohol, so we really need to try to do something.

One important point is that there will always be critics of new legislation which is intended to alter social habits. Remember, for example, the furore over the smoking ban, the reduction in drink/drive limits and the charge for plastic bags. All were decried when introduced, with the media going out of its way to tell the public what terrible ideas they were.

Now, drink/drive statistics are easily manipulated, so it is difficult to say for certain whether that particular change has had any effect. Anecdotally, I know several people who have stopped drinking when they are driving because of the change, but we will need to see long term trends before we can judge the success or failure of this change. However, the stories of potential problems do not seem to have come true.

The charge for plastic bags has definitely made a difference to the environment as anyone can see simply by walking down the street, and the ban on smoking in public places has made visiting pubs and restaurants a much more pleasant experience for non-smokers. Importantly, the health benefits of this change are only now being seen by medical experts, more than a decade after the law was brought in. MUP may well require a similar timescale before we can evaluate its success. But if it can prevent even a handful of teenagers becoming alcoholics, it will have accomplished something beneficial.

Needless to say, MUP has made people pay more attention to the price of alcoholic drinks. There have been some comments on social media claiming that some retailers are increasing the prices of drinks which are already priced above the MUP requirement. This is all anecdotal at the moment, but the way modern retailers operate could certainly lead to unscrupulous increasing of prices which can be blamed on the Scottish Government. However, we should not forget that the fall in the value of sterling thanks to Brexit may well have been the cause of increases in the price of imported wines, so let’s not be too hasty to judge.

The final point I’d like to make on this is that problems with alcohol, tobacco and drugs are symptoms of poverty, not causes. The best way to tackle all three of these is to alleviate the poverty which affects so many of our fellow citizens. However, without the full range of economic and fiscal powers being available, the Scottish Government must try alternative ways to reduce the harm that these addictions cause. MUP is one way of attempting to do that. It may work, or it may not, but we need to give it time.

Of course, if we had the full range of powers which are available to normal countries, we should be able to do more to tackle these problems of addiction. If only there had been some way of achieving that.