Alcohol – Minimum Price or a Heavy Price?

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I had a dream last night; I dreamt that I was married to Labour’s formidable Health Spokesperson Jackie Baillie.

I had a dream last night; I dreamt that I was married to Labour’s formidable Health Spokesperson Jackie Baillie.

In my dream I had finished work and joined my workmates in the pub where we had a right good booze up.  Later we went to the local Indian restaurant and had a slap up meal followed by double espresso’s and a few more drams.  Staggering home in the early hours I tentatively slid my key into the lock and crept inside only to be confronted by my ‘dream spouse’ standing in dressing gown and rollers and armed with a rolling pin.

“Where have you been?” she bellowed as I cowered.  Still half drunk I capitulated and made a full confession on the spot.

“Don’t give me that boozing rubbish” she yelled “You’ve been to Starbucks again – I can smell the coffee off your breath.” WHACK!!

Last week Labour’s alcohol proposals were presented to a Scottish parliamentary committee.  The proposals – trailed as an alternative to the SNP’s minimum price plan – had been unveiled by the Labour inspired ‘alcohol commission’.  The commission, after months of deliberation, recommended that caffeine levels should be limited in alcoholic drinks and a ‘floor price’ based on production costs and duty should be set for alcohol products.

To say the proposals were weak is being kind; if the parliamentary committee had been a jury then Labour would have been charged with wasting police time as it emerged there was little or no evidence to back most of the commission’s recommendations.  The proposals were exposed as a shambles and gave the impression of having been cobbled together in order to make it appear that Labour actually had an alternative to minimum pricing.

It was a precursor to a vote later in the week; the vote would see the latest collaboration between Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems as they continue to frustrate the SNP’s attempts to govern.

We’ve seen similar opposition tactics before when the referendum bill and LIT were both scuppered by the Unionist bloc.  Tax and the constitution are I suppose borderline fair game for the political shenanigans and manoeuvrings that have replaced the consensus politics that Holyrood originally promised.  Health though was surely the one area that was off limits, the well being of those whom our elected officials are supposed to represent would always supersede party politics.

Not anymore.

The SNP policy is designed to target what everyone agrees is a national chronic alcohol problem.  It isn’t just the tearaways whose drink fuelled anti-social behaviour is causing misery for many decent hard working Scots, it is the years of binge drinking and general over-indulgence that is wrecking the lives of thousands and putting a strain on dwindling health service resources.  It is also the very many alcohol related deaths.

The health record of Scotland is not one to be proud of.  Bottom of almost every compiled table, we have life expectancies in some areas that are almost third world.  The minimum price proposal is a radical attempt at trying to address a part of the problem.  It has been acknowledged that the SNP plan isn’t a silver bullet, but years of inaction is enough and something needs to be done.

It might not work, indeed the SNP compromised by offering to put in a ‘sunset clause’ that would ensure parliament could repeal the legislation if it proved to be ineffective.  This though wasn’t enough and the Unionists on the committee voted to remove minimum pricing from the bill.

It would affect businesses said the Tory member of the committee Mary Scanlon.  It would put money into the coffers of businesses said Labour as each couldn’t even agree on why they were in agreement.

It will lead to men in white vans travelling to England in order to beat the system argued Labour MSP Doctor Richard Simpson.

Dr Simpson was against introducing legislation that will save the lives of 70 Scots in its first year because some people might buy their carry out across the border.

The idea that fleets of white vans would depart Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee in order to buy drink that in some cases would be less than 50p per bottle cheaper is less than convincing.  Petrol, time, effort and of course their own mark-up would render the black market products even dearer than legitimate goods.

‘Fancy a knock off bottle of vodi mate? – only a quid dearer that in the shops.’

The aforementioned Jackie Baillie is on record as saying that the SNP’s proposal would “hit the poor”.

Hit the poor indeed.

It’s pretty much accepted that those who suffer most from Scotland’s alcohol problem are those at the bottom of the social ladder.  Deprivation, hopelessness and low self esteem lead many to embrace the twilight escapism that alcohol offers.  These people are also more prone to descend into the even deeper morass that is drug abuse.

I know only too well the dreadful toll that drink and drugs can have on people and families.  My uncle dropped dead at the age of fifty having succumbed to years of excessive drinking and I had two aunts, one dead at 49 and another dead at 60, whose lives were blighted by chronic alcoholism, my father became a tea-totaller after being told a decade ago that his next drink could be his last.  My heroin addict brother’s life was only saved due to the methadone programme.

Jackie Baillie claims that by introducing a minimum price per unit alcohol the poor will be forced to pay more to enjoy a drink.  Well, one of the things that my brother used to say was that he dreaded news of a big shipment of drugs being uncovered by police.  The reason was one of supply and demand; you see when the police remove drugs from the street then dealers eventually increase the price.  Some will even cut harmful substances into the drug in order to stretch their dwindling supply.  In short, drug seizures hit the poor.

Is Jackie Baillie going to demand an end to such seizures?  Of course she isn’t and nor should she.

Now, before the Scottish media rush to print the headline ‘Natty Nat claims poor are drug addicts’ let’s make one thing clear.  This isn’t about labelling the poor as excessive drinkers or drug addicts, and yes the buying of drugs is illegal whereas the buying of alcohol is not.  It is about the principle behind the proposed legislation.

The principle is the same in that the legislation in both cases is designed in order to minimise the ingestion of harmful substances.

The fact that the people will have to pay more in order to obtain these products is not a reason against the legislation, it is a reason FOR the legislation.  In the case of alcohol of course, it is only those products at the bottom end of the price market that will be hit.  The cheap ciders, spirits and super strength lagers.

So, with the committee voting the proposal down the SNP are left with one final option; present the bill to parliament and let the chamber decide.

The fear is that opposition MSPs who actually support the bill may be coerced into voting against or abstaining.  Even if they rebel against their leaders and support the SNP it might still not be enough to pass the bill, and petty party politics might again prevail.

Most of the Scottish media presented the committee vote as though it were the result of a game, it was presented as a contest between two factions.  The Labour/Tory/ Lib Dem alliance was described by the BBC correspondent as a ‘victory’ for the opposition.  Other media outlets described it as a ‘defeat’ for the SNP, the Daily Record described the result as a “black eye for the SNP”.  Few highlighted the support for minimum pricing by the Greens and amongst the very many professional organisations and bodies.

One could almost hear the champagne corks popping and journalists cheering as the 5-3 ‘score line’ was announced and yet another ‘flagship’ policy was sabotaged.

Amidst all the headlines and political posturing, it’s worth remembering what’s at stake here – lives.  Here is a plan that health experts estimate will save the lives of 70 Scots in its first year, that alone should be reason enough to include minimum pricing in the bill.

If minimum pricing does not get through parliament then 70 people will die.

What kind of victory would that be?