Monday, 2 March 2009

Booze - the cause and solution of all life's problems...

The Scottish Government has brought forward its next stage of proposals for countering Scotland's alcohol problem, and unsurprisingly they have provoked an instant response from opposition parties and industry representatives.

Firstly, I think that it is important to recognise that the Government is right to be confronting this issue, and is to be congratulated on being brave enough to suggest unpopular measures - not something that the SNP Government commonly does. They could be merely suggesting tinkering with the edges of the issues, or indeed ignoring it all together, as they have done with other areas during their time in government, but instead are putting forward real proposals and inviting debate on them.

These proposals do present an innovative approach to alcohol in Scotland. A minimum price (particularly one based on alcohol content rather than just flat rate across the board) is potentially the key change from what I can see. Currently it is the case that is often extremely strong alcohol which is on sale at the lowest prices - forcing these products to rise in price in line with their content could make certain frequently abused products less accessible to those abusing, particularly younger people. Reducing the visibility of alcohol products in shops and supermarkets may impact upon sales, although I would imagine this might be a negligible difference - certainly the removal of 3for2 offers and the like would have more impact, reducing the temptation to 'overbuy' alcohol - I know that I have certainly purchased three bottles of wine due to a 3 for £10 offer or the like when I have only been in to get one. The absence of such offers (although I would imagine that this might be a potentially difficult area to legislate for) would therefore mean that people buying alcohol may reduce the amount. Charging larger venues a social responsibility fee to cover the costs of policing is also a positive step forward - if businesses are making money from selling alcohol, then they should also be contributing to the societal impact that can be directly linked to their activities.

However, much of the framework is unworkable and ill thought out. Firstly, and crucially, the framework aims to use legislation to combat an issue which is primarily one of education and cultural influences. Raising the cost of alcohol will not stop abuse - instead it will make those who are already abusing alcohol more likely to take negative actions in order to meet the expense of their addiction - this would cover a range of antisocial behaviours from neglect of children and vulnerable adults to theft. Scotland's alcohol problem will only be successfully changed if the attitude towards alcohol in the country changes - much as someone addicted to alcohol requires therapeutic support to break the cycle, so the country requires a deep look at our national psyche.

This is an educational issue and one which requires decades of intervention in order to overcome generations of cultural influences. Scotland is a country of alcohol - all of our social, cultural and sporting events revolve around alcoholic consumption to a deeper degree than many other countries. Alcoholic consumption is buried in our national soul, and it will require a concerted effort to root it out.

Secondly, the framework takes the easy way out by demonising our young people rather than by challenging the alcohol consumption which is prevalent throughout society. Indeed it has previously been demonstrated that it was the middle classes who were most likely to be overconsuming alcohol in day to day life.

This isn't to detract from the fact that work is needed with young people to change the problem - indeed, the cultural shift that I talked about above will only come about from future generations changing how they view alcohol. However to imply, as aspects of the framework do, that young people are the 'problem' group is to miss the point and to distract from the relevant areas that do need targeted.

Banning under-21s from purchasing carry outs is, in my non-professional view, nonsensical and unfair. If under-21s are such a problematic strand of society, then they should be banned from drinking altogether. However, allowing 18-20 year olds to drink in certain settings but implying that they are untrustworthy in others is a contradiction which will only serve to drive a wedge between young people and the governmental measures being introduced. The criminalisation of young people will do nothing to benefit the country, and will contribute to further increasing the strains on our justice system.

Finally, the proposals raise very significant issues for Scottish businesses during a period of recession and global economic instability. This should not be the primary issue in debating the framework - it is estimated that alcohol costs the NHS £1 million a day and presents a societal problem in Scotland which outweighs the business concerns of the alcohol industry. However, it is important that the industry is involved in the debate in order to create workable solutions. It is right that it is not the responsibility of off-licences and the like to dictate to consumers what they are purchasing (other than by complying with existing legislation) and to introduce unsustainable burdens upon the industry will merely create new societal problems. The industry must be part of the solution if it is going to not be part of the problem.

The bill that the proposals are being contained within is a massive one covering a huge variety of different strands and it is disappointing that the Scottish Government is seeking to introduce the measures in this way. What is required for this vital issue is a serious and in-depth debate over the impact that alcohol has in Scotland and the measures required to combat it, with a level of cross party agreement vital if we wish to see an approach introduced which can be viable and successful.

The SNP have raised some innovative points, but to try and push this framework through will be detrimental to everyone. They must separate the proposals from the bill they are currently attached to in order to allow proper scrutiny and debate and to accord the issue with the importance that it demands. Anything else will undo the start they have made, and confine combatting alcohol to the scrap heap of failed SNP proposals - Scotland deserves better than that.

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