Nicola Sturgeon and staff of Glasgow
Royal Infirmary yesterday
Scotland and the rest of the UK has an alcohol problem. It's a cultural problem resulting in avoidable health issues and one which has been ignored for decades.
Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish government intended to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit on cheap alcohol from April of next year. A brave move some say while others protest it is a tax on the poor. It's certainly a boost to the profits of the producers and retailers of alcohol and a move which will hit moderate drinkers the hardest, although as one myself I have no objection to my taxes going towards making our society a better place in which to live. But will it?
Alcohol is perhaps the most damaging legal and socially acceptable consumer item freely available for all. It not only damages the heavy drinker but family and friends of alcoholics can be seriously affected.
My problem with the minimum pricing proposal is that it's based on a couple of studies from Canada (BC in particular) and a 'model' study from an English university. We're all well aware how the 'model' studies of climate change eventually revealed a chain of unjustifiable claims and brought the science into disrepute. It also concerns me that once this minimum pricing proposal is socially accepted it will lead to further price increases; such as 'fatty' foods and carbonated soft drinks.
The results of the Canadian studies are interesting but have been queried by several charities which deal with those suffering alcohol problems. One individual I know, who has worked with the Canadian AA for many years, agrees the consumption of alcohol has slightly reduced, but little attention has been paid to the increase in illegal drug abuse, which has increased far more than the decrease seen since the introduction of minimum pricing.
Some may argue certain drugs are less harmful than alcohol and that may be true, but my informant relays the reduction in alcohol consumption is mainly due to the better off reducing the quantities they purchase. If an individual wants to get alcohol they will and a price hike makes no difference.
My Canadian friend also says the most effective way to stop excessive alcohol consumption is proper education of the young and correct use of the law plus, with the help of medical practitioners, a system of indentifying abuse before it causes long-term harm.
Drunks are not tolerated on the streets of BC as they are here in the UK. Police gather them up and put them in cells until they're sober and, with few exceptions, they are charged the following day. Shame and humiliation causes many to reduce their intake and repeat offenders are quickly identified. Usually they are offered treatment for their addiction, although I understand some of the treatments result in addiction to prescription drugs.
It's a catch 22 situation in many ways. Any attempt to reduce the attraction and consumption of cheap alcohol will have problems, but I don't think the introduction of minimum pricing is brave. I consider it an easy - and relatively untested - solution to a serious cultural problem, but although it's easy it's a step in the right direction.
A brave move would be to change our relationship with alcohol and recognise why so many people abuse it. It's not just the young sprawled on the pavements on Friday and Saturday nights who may have problems. Behind closed doors is where a great deal of alcohol is consumed and where dependancy develops.
That's why it's a cultural problem because something is wrong at the heart of a society where so many, too often, reach for alcohol in order to mask their worries. It's sad to know that we're prepared to increase the cost yet not address the core reasons for the problem with any seriousness.