Drinks industry ‘distorted evidence’ to Holyrood on minimum pricing

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   By a Newsnet reporter

A former convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee has suggested that alcohol industry witnesses should be recalled to the committee in light of the information that has been published about evidence regarding minimum alcohol pricing having been distorted.

Today, an academic study of evidence provided to the Scottish Government as part of its alcohol policy consultation concludes that industry actors “ignored, misrepresented, and otherwise sought to undermine the content of the international evidence base on effective policies in order to influence policy.”

The report, published in the academic journal PLOS Medicine was based on research led by Dr Jim McCambridge at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  Dr McCambridge’s team examined submissions made by the industry to the Scottish Government’s consultation on minimum pricing for alcohol in 2008.

It found that:

  • Industry actors consistently oppose the approaches found in research to be most likely to be effective at a population level without actually engaging with the research literature in any depth.
  • Strong evidence is misrepresented and weak evidence is promoted. Unsubstantiated claims are made about the adverse effects of unfavoured policy proposals and advocacy of policies favoured by industry is not supported by the presentation of evidence.
  • The potential for corporations with vested interests to interfere with the evaluation of scientific evidence by policy makers needs to be restricted for effective policies to be designed.
  • Studies of the nature of alcohol industry and other corporate influences on public policies can be informed by work already conducted on the tobacco industry.

The Portman Group, which campaigns for the drinks industry on social responsibility, strongly disputed the report’s findings.

However the report’s findings were welcomed by organisations fighting to combat alcohol addiction and its social and medical effects. 

Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said:

“Alcohol Focus Scotland completely supports the Scottish Government’s efforts to reduce alcohol harm … It is regrettable that the Scotch Whisky Association and their European counterparts have delayed this month’s introduction of minimum pricing in Scotland by their legal challenge. This delay will cost lives.”

The SNP’s minimum pricing plans were defeated in the last Parliament by a combination of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory opposition. However, the plans were approved this term by a majority SNP Government, and after U-turns, by both the Lib Dems and the Tories.

The legislation is currently subject to a legal challenge brought at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and several European wine and spirits bodies.

SNP MSP Christine Grahame, who chaired the Health Committee’s extensive evidence sessions during the last Parliament, has said that the current legal challenge means it is essential that any dubiety about evidence on which the Committee’s conclusions were based be urgently investigated.

She has now written to current convener Duncan McNeill to suggest that the committee check the evidence submitted previously against the findings of today’s report, and invite Dr McCambridge and those named in the report to appear before the committee.

Commenting, Ms Grahame said:

“Alcohol policy was a heated political debate in the last parliamentary session, we had several evidence sessions where industry representatives strongly asserted that there was a lack of evidence to support the Scottish Government’s proposals – particularly minimum pricing.

“Of course, we already know that minimum pricing will be effective – as the research from Canada has shown, a minimum pricing policy introduced there has been far more effective than they ever expected.

“Given the highly critical comments by Dr McCambridge today, I think it would be appropriate for the Health Committee to check the evidence submitted last session against the findings in today’s report, and invite Dr McCambridge and any of those who may have been involved in giving incorrect evidence to appear before the committee.

“We did of course have to recall John Beard from Whyte & Mackay in the last session to clarify apparent contradictions in the evidence he gave – so there is no reason that others could not be invited to do likewise in light of this report.

“The minimum pricing policy is currently subject to a legal challenge from the drinks industry – so it is absolutely vital that we can have full confidence in the evidence on which some industry representatives based their claims.”

Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said:

“We’ll study the report very carefully indeed. I think not just the Scottish government but the Scottish parliament will have something to say if they have been deliberately misled by anybody.”