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Scotland 'leading the way on tackling problem drinking'

Published 13/11/2015

Academics have examined different measures adopted across the four parts of the United Kingdom to tackle problem drinking
Academics have examined different measures adopted across the four parts of the United Kingdom to tackle problem drinking

Scotland is leading the way in alcohol policy in the UK while the Westminster Government "comes out worst" on almost all such measures a new report has found.

Academics from Stirling and Sheffield universities examined the different measures adopted across the four parts of the United Kingdom when it comes to dealing with the nation's drink problem.

They have now recommended that the UK Government should "reverse its opposition" to minimum pricing for alcohol.

Holyrood has already passed legislation to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) of 50p for alcoholic drinks, although this has not yet been implemented because of a legal challenge currently before the European Court of Justice.

The report by Dr Niamh Fitzgerald, from Stirling University, and Colin Angus, at the University of Sheffield, highlighted the Scottish Government's support for minimum pricing and also praised it for leading the way by cutting the drink-driving limit north of the border and investing record amounts in alcohol treatment.

Dr Fitzgerald said: "Alcohol policy at UK Government level is in disarray, with it choosing to reduce taxation despite evidence that consumption and alcohol-related harms will increase as a result, putting even greater pressure on NHS and emergency services.

"In contrast to the UK Government, the devolved administrations - especially Scotland - are taking steps to address the widespread harms due to alcohol, recognising that they are a 'whole population' issue."

But she added: "All four nations, however, engage in partnership with the alcohol industry, despite clear conflicts of interest and its history of failure to support those policies most likely to work."

According to the study, "o verall Scotland has the strongest approach to evidence-based alcohol policy", and while Wales and Northern Ireland policies are "strong in some areas and weaker in others", it noted that both have less powers over relevant legislation than the Scottish Government.

It continued: " The UK/England government in Westminster comes out worst on almost all alcohol policy measures, having the weakest policies with inconsistent use of evidence and an evaluation strategy with obvious conflicts of interest (eg letting the alcohol industry evaluate the success of their own actions). The same government also has the highest level of engagement with the alcohol industry."

Scotland has banned multi-buy discounts for alcohol - such as buy one get one free offers - in both pubs and clubs and off-licences and supermarkets, but the report said: "The UK coalition government rejected a ban on multi-buy discounts in off-licences after consultation on the alcohol strategy in 2013."

On minimum pricing it said evidence from Canada found the measure "to be effective at reducing alcohol related harm", adding that: " Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have stated their support for minimum unit pricing for alcohol and Scotland has legislated for it."

In contrast, the report said the UK Government had " announced and then reversed its support for a similar policy in England and Wales".

The academics said "o nly in Scotland were we able to find provision for local authorities (subject to confirmation by the Scottish ministers) to create bylaws to ban drinking in designated public places".

They also said ministers north of the border had led the way in prioritising so called "alcohol brief interventions" - where GPs, health staff, youth workers and others offer advice to an individual on their drinking - having set targets for these since 2008 which have "consistently been exceeded".

The report continued: " The Scottish Government invested record amounts in treatment services under its alcohol strategy from 2008 and has managed to increase the proportion of alcohol-dependent individuals in treatment compared to England and Wales where there has not been the same injection of resources."

Scottish Public Health Minister Maureen Watt said: "We welcome this report, which shows once again that Scotland is leading the way in taking strong, evidence-based action to tackle alcohol misuse.

"Our Alcohol Framework contains more than 40 measures to reduce alcohol-related harm and has had a positive impact so far but, while an average of around 22 people a week still die because of alcohol, there can be no room for complacency. That is why we are working on the next phase of our alcohol strategy which will be ready in 2016.

"There is no doubt that a key factor in alcohol-related harm is affordability. This is why minimum unit pricing is such an important part of our package of measures and is needed to tackle the availability of cheap, high strength alcohol that causes so much damage in our communities.

"This report acknowledges that MUP, which is supported by Wales and Northern Ireland, could save thousands of lives and lead to substantial reductions in alcohol-related crime and absence from work.

"The report also notes that Scotland has led the way in prioritising the delivery of alcohol brief interventions - and consistently exceeded our targets for these - and in lowering the drink-drive limit, among other measures.

A statement from the Portman Group, an industry-funded body representing UK drinks producers, said: "Drinks companies work in partnership with government, local authorities, police, health services and voluntary groups across the UK to tackle alcohol-related harms and help make local areas great places to live, work and play.

"This report is driven by an ideology based on tobacco control policies and takes no account of the real-life evidence about alcohol in our society today. This ideology is fixated upon reducing alcohol consumption, yet the report fails to acknowledge the almost 20% decline in alcohol consumption in the UK during the last ten years.

"The report also fails to include any of the official government statistics that clearly show significant declines in binge drinking (down 20%), alcohol-related crime (down 34%), underage drinking (down 36%) and drink driving (down 47%) in the last decade, and makes basic factual errors regarding the self-regulatory system for alcohol marketing.

"By working in partnership with industry, the UK Government has achieved a voluntary removal of 1.3 billion units of alcohol from the market to help more people drink within safe guidelines (currently 70% of all adults do so) and 80% of products on shelves now carry key health information, over 90% carry a warning about alcohol and pregnancy. Achievements like this were delivered quickly and at no cost to the taxpayer.

"The drinks industry is a committed partner of Government and together they are taking action today to make positive, tangible improvements to communities across the UK. It is a shame that this report seeks to undermine substantial progress in the last ten years, rather than contributing positively to the partnership."

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