SHAAP Blog....personal reflections from Peter Rice

One good habit to get into when reading anything about alcohol is to ask what the writer’s angle is, so I’ll declare my interests so you can get your prejudices in place. (And don’t feel bad about making prejudgements. We all do it, especially about things we know something about. It usually saves time.)

I’m part of what is sometime referred to as the Scottish Health lobby, a term some folk use disparagingly, but there’s no other lobby in the alcohol field that I’d want to be part of. I’m a doctor, worked full time in the National Health Service for 32 years until Spring 2013. I enjoyed that, particularly my 23 years as a Consultant Psychiatrist helping people, families and communities with alcohol problems. I’m part of that lucky generation who had free University tuition and maintenance grants in the late 70s and early 80s, and good terms of employment which allowed me to leave full time NHS employment at a stage in my work life where I have the energy and interest to stay involved in work I care about. I’ve been involved with Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), a project of the Scottish Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties ( from its inception in 2006, was Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland from 2009 until June 2013 and have been chair of SHAAP from 2012, succeeding Bruce Ritson, who, with Peter Brunt founded the organisation .

My original intention was for my first blog to be a more extensive introduction to SHAAP, but the alcohol world is a fast moving scene and yesterday the Daily Mail (16th November 2013) in Scotland had a bold front page headline “SNP Ban On Cheap Booze Is Shelved” which needs some urgent response, so that’s what will take priority. I’d link to the story online, but it’s not on the Daily Mail’s extensive website. I’ve had problems before with lack of web publication of Scottish stories by UK newspapers (the Sunday Times is another offender), but although the story is billed as an exclusive by the Mail, it’s pretty much the same content as this Scotsman story from last month

The gist of their story is that legal action is delaying the implementation of the alcohol Minimum Unit Price (MUP) legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in May 2012 and the Daily Mail is accusing the Scottish Government of dragging their feet. SHAAP had been campaigning for MUP from our formation, we were delighted with the legislation and were looking forward to the introduction of MUP in April 2013. We were disappointed, but not surprised, that the Scotch Whisky Association and a couple of partner organisations took legal action against the law passed without meaningful opposition by Parliament. (The only vote against was by a Minister pressing the wrong button.)They did this in the knowledge that the Government would not implement the legislation while legal proceedings continue. So it’s the SWA action which is holding up MUP, not any lack of will from the Government. There was marked criticism of the SWA decision to appeal by leading Scottish journalists, but this did not deter them. See this piece by Evelyn Gillan, Alcohol Focus Scotland Chief Exec and myself for more detail,-global-alcohol-producers-challenge.html . (I should note for accuracy that the Brewers of Europe did not end up joining the group taking the legal action and in general, like the pub trade, brewers have been keener to support price controls than distillers.) 

The Health Lobby (maybe we should get a wee badge made so people know who we are) were pleased when the Government’s position on the legality of MUP was upheld was by the Court of Session in May 2013 and the grounds for this decision are important in decoding the Mail and Scotsman articles, both of which replicate the continued arguments from the global alcohol spirits producers as represented by the SWA. Here’s the full judgment and a summary from SHAAP and Alcohol Focus Scotland,Briefing_on_Scottish_court_judgement_on_minimum_pricing.html

To deal first with the argument that the decision should be referred to the European Court of Justice for a quick decision. The Court of Session judgement was that local courts (in this case, Scottish courts) have a better grasp of the local circumstances so, as well as having the authority to decide, are best placed to judge on the effectiveness and proportionality of the measure. So there’s no need or justification for the issue to go to the ECJ. While I’m no expert in European legal processes, my impression is that “European Court of Justice” and “quick decision” aren’t terms that are often seen together. It seems to me that the industry’s attempts to get the case kicked over to Europe are because it will take even longer to get resolved. They may also have calculated that a European court, being more detached from the health and social impacts than a national court, will be more likely to rule against price controls. The force of the Court of Session view, that local courts will know best, may be what the SWA and their allies are afraid of.

So the process drags on as the litigants knew it would. There’s an appeal back to the Court of Session and, I understand, the option of a further appeal to the UK Supreme Court. Each stage seems to take at least 12 months. That’s the legal process, we have to respect that and, if the litigants are determined and can afford the costs, that’s their choice to make, but the responsibility for the delays lies at the door of those parts of the Whisky and Wine industries taking the action.
The second plank of the Mail’s story is that the European Commission has ruled that the MUP law breached a section of the EU treaty which covers free trade (Section 34.) Well, they didn’t. They said that to avoid breaching Section 34, the measure needed to show that it was a proportionate response to a significant problem and that existing powers could not deal with the problem as effectively and that the Government needed to “give due consideration to the ( Commission’s) remarks”). The Commission’s remarks included that increasing excise duty rates was a better option than MUP to achieve the same goals. 

This issue was considered in depth by the Court of Session which looked at the extensive evidence which had been accumulated on the respective effects of the two different price mechanisms (excise duty increase and minimum price.) SHAAP has long taken the view that MUP is a better targeted measure than excise duty increases for health purposes and should be the priority in our present situation, though MUP and excise duty increases can work together well to achieve both health improvement and increase government revenues. Enthusiastic econometricians can delve into the University of Sheffield’s alcohol policy modelling reports here.

It was therefore welcome to see that the Court of Session shared the SHAAP view that MUP achieved health improvement goals that excise duties couldn’t and that it was better targeted at the drinks most closely linked to harm, that is, the cheapest drinks which are predominately drunk by the heaviest drinkers. This was the basis for the supreme civil court in Scotland to determine that MUP was legal in terms of the EU treaty, as any interference with trade was more than justified by the health benefits.

For anyone used to the Daily Mail’s usual views, it’s a surprise to see the paper arguing that a European court should take precedence over a UK court. The Mail’s support for the Commission’s opinion, presumably including the recommendation that excise duties be increased, affecting all alcohol products in all settings, pubs as well as supermarkets is also surprising. A change of tack for the usually eurosceptic and libertarian Mail, but we know that can alcohol make people do unexpected things.
So this doctor’s blog ends up mostly about politics, economics and the law, but that’s how it is in the alcohol world at the moment. Prevention is better than cure, and these are the issues holding up our most effective preventive measure just now. Great work continues in Scotland and elsewhere on treatment and care, SHAAP and others do a lot of work on professional and public education. Hopefully more on that another time. 
In the meantime, our small but perfectly formed SHAAP team can keep you up to date with developments through our website and Twitter @shaapalcohol.

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