Monday, 6 June 2011

Why minimum alcohol pricing was - and still is - a bad idea

Willie Rennie has today said that he is going to seek support of the party for minimum alcohol pricing. Now, I know Willie has supported this for a number of years, and normally he gets these things right, but this time I have to disagree.

There's a number of reasons why I'm opposed. Firstly, will it actually work? Take the middle-class alcoholic (though he'd not admit it) for whom a whisky or glass of wine after work has become a "crutch", as Tony Blair once put it. Will a price rise affect him? Most likely not – he'll either already buy products above the price limit anyway, or will simply absorb it into his monthly spending.

What about the real, hardened addicted drinkers at the other end of the social scale? History suggests that when the price of drugs go up, it doesn't actually force addicts to turn round and question what they're spending the money on. Instead, they take it from their other expenditures, the addiction forcing them to find a way of getting alcohol. So that means maybe that the kids get one meal a day instead of two, or that their new school uniform is forgone in place of a few bottles of White Lightning. Without support, and without being able to admit suffering, these people will simply become worse off again under this proposal.

And that's the crux. An increase in duty, or a tax otherwise implemented by Westminster, could be allocated to direct help for alcohol problems. That I would support. But instead, the increased profits from the sale of alcohol won't go to help those who suffer from its effect – it will go straight into the profits of the drinks companies and their shareholders' dividends.

In his article on Liberal Democrat Voice, he does make a good point that there is already much legislation in place which needs to be better enforced. So why not do this first? What is it about the legislation around test sales which allows big companies' lawyers to wriggle their clients out of a suspension or withdrawal of licence? Why not spend some time sorting this out and trying what we've got?

If this policy is to be implemented, then there needs to be a discussion with the drinks companies on the excess profits which will be produced. If there's a way, even through a voluntary agreement, whereby the extra profit raised can be used by the Scottish Government for a clear plan to combat alcohol abuse, then I might be able to support this. Without this, though, we will end up in the situation where responsible drinkers are penalised unfairly and problem drinkers don't get the support they badly need because it can't be afforded.

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