Our MSPs are just debating the proposal to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. This issue has been very controversial although everyone agrees that Scotland has a culture of excessive drinking and that the consequences for our society include poor health, alcohol fuelled crime and reduced employment. Everyone agrees that something must be done.
But what should we do?
This Bill proposes the introduction of a minimum price per unit alcohol. This is a policy which the Church of Scotland has been advocating since 1983. In December 2009 the Kirk launched a campaign asking members of congregations to write to alcohol producers asking them to work with the Government to support minimum pricing. Church members have indicated their support of the campaign and this support has been expressed through different voices, in letters to MSPs, blogs etc. Personally, as a minister and as a convener of the Church and Society Council, I have not remained silent on this issue either.
We seem to be getting bogged down in the debate as to whether people on low incomes will be penalised by the Bill; or whether people will resort to online purchasing in order to access cheaper alcohol. Modelling exercises have been done trying to predict consumer effects and the more we research the more confusing the issue seems to get. Does it need to be so confusing and controversial?
We cannot know, for certain, how consumers would respond to a minimum price; in the end we have to make the best decision we can with the best information available to us. The best information that is available to us is the updated Sheffield Study which draws the clear conclusion that minimum pricing will reduce alcohol consumption. The minimum price needs to be set high enough to generate real change. Minimum pricing is not a panacea and it will not by itself solve our societal problem with alcohol consumption. However, the evidence suggests that an increase in the minimum price of alcohol will reduce consumption of alcohol and reduce the resulting problems for individuals and our society. It is not a case of penalising the majority in order to discourage the minority.
What are we really debating, a health issue or an economics issue? I believe that this not a debate about which policy will be most beneficial for businesses or for Government revenue. This is a debate about whether we, as a society, choose to take action to improve our collective health and wellbeing. We live in a society in which the consequences of excessive drinking are shared by us all. It is up to us to say that an individual, regardless of their income, does not have a right to unlimited access to cheap alcohol when such access is detrimental to the common good.
I hope MSPs stepped back from the debate about details and supported the principle that addressing the affordability of alcohol through minimum pricing is a crucial part of the solution to our problems with alcohol.