Friday, 20 November 2009

Paying the price of cheap drink

SERIOUS alcohol abuse was highlighted at the regular face-to-face MSP briefing by NHS Highland last Friday.

At a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol, "own brand" whiskies and vodkas, gins and cheap ciders, excluding the likes of Bulmers Original and Magners Irish Cider, would be considerably dearer. Moderate drinkers of well-known brands would not have to pay more.

Other experts have backed the Scottish Government in seeking a minimum price for popular low-cost drinks. We know that wines, beer, cider and spirits are 30 per cent cheaper now than 10 years ago. Also that liver disease and ill-health statistics due to excess consumption are rocketing here in Scotland. So what is to be done?

Dr Emilia Crighton, convener of the Faculty of Public Health in Scotland, insisted that there was an "overwhelming case" that cheap drink was damaging Scotland's health.

As the evidence stacks up week after week, those politicians who oppose minimum pricing look increasingly irresponsible. The issue here is ending a situation where three-litre bottles of chemical cider are sold for £3, or 700ml bottles of industrial vodka for less than £7. These are the products favoured by problem drinkers and are exactly the ones that will be targeted by minimum pricing.

Minimum pricing of alcohol has a broad support base among medical experts, the police and the pub trade. Even the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in England, the UK Government's expert advisory body on medical treatment, strongly backed minimum pricing as a way of reducing consumption among harmful and hazardous drinkers.

I very much welcome the intervention by a senior Liberal Democrat MP and front bencher at Westminster, in which he fully supports minimum pricing of alcohol. Speaking at a "business in sport and leisure" conference in London (reported in The Publican on November 12) Don Foster, the Lib Dems' shadow culture spokesperson, said: "I truly believe the time has now come to be looking at a scheme for minimum pricing." This directly contradicts the stance of the Liberal Democrat leadership in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Foster's comments echo remarks by the Liberal Westminster business spokesperson, Lorely Burt, who branded cheap supermarket booze the biggest problem and reiterated her party's support for minimum pricing.

In October last year, the UK Lib Dems produced a report on the UK's relationship with alcohol, which called for minimum pricing to be introduced. I hope that Mr Foster can come to meet with MSPs, including his own Lib Dem colleagues, in order to explain the importance of minimum pricing in tackling alcohol misuse. What do our Highland Lib Dem MSPs believe?

The coalition in support of minimum pricing is broad and growing, involving the police, health professionals, the licensed trade, the British Liver Trust and the four chief medical officers across the UK. Regrettably, the Lib Dems in Scotland are on the outside of this process.

Yet the scale of Scotland's alcohol misuse problem is shocking: 42,500 alcohol-related hospital discharges; 1500 deaths per year; soaring rates of liver cirrhosis; the eighth highest consumption in the world; and a 2.25 billion annual cost in public services and lost productivity.

Those MSPs in the Scottish Parliament who are not yet persuaded of the case for minimum pricing would benefit from hearing Don Foster's advice.


A RECENT debate on the built heritage was mentioned in the local papers. In the debate I made a plea to preserve and interpret numerous pre-Clearances villages scattered across the North. Then Tory grandee Sir Jamie McGrigor waxed lyrical about the French-renaissance-meets-Scots-baronial splendour of Dunrobin Castle.

I remarked that Dunrobin Castle is well preserved by the family that owns it. Did he think that the Clearances villages that were created by the policies of such people's ancestors should be preserved?

He replied: "My colleague Jamie Stone mentioned Tain museum, which I believe is a museum to the Clearances." Although not entirely true the chamber was thoroughly amused to hear Jamie McGrigor continue, "of course, that (the Clearances) was one of the Lib Dems' original social engineering experiments." He was referring to the Dukes of Sutherland being Whigs, not Tories, the ancestors of today's Lib Dems.


LET me update you on a very positive social engineering experiment welcomed wholeheartedly by people in this area today. A couple of weeks ago, door-to-door calls by the Energy Saving Trust in Thurso asked all householders needing advice to contact 0800 512 012. The lines have been red hot.

Back in August, Lybster and its surrounding area had similar treatment from Powerdown Scotland, organised by the local co-ordinator Anne Sutherland. Both are Scottish Government-backed schemes. Already 20 houses in Lybster are being treated and advice as to grants made available.

I caught up with Alan Grant, the EST outreach engagement officer for Highlands and Islands, at the Taste of Tain event last Saturday, which I had the pleasure of opening. He was delighted with the public response. It shows what every household can do to cut fuel bills, stop draughts and cease to "heat the sky".

Alness is now getting the chance to have help assessing the best way to climate-proof each home, as Thurso did.

As our national day, November 30, draws near, let's make St Andrew's Day a modern celebration of our emerging national self-confidence. Although climate change knows no national boundaries, each nation must take responsibility.

Let's take our place among the nations as responsible citizens who have come to terms with the consequences if our planet is allowed to overheat, and do some useful work to cut our fuel bills.

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