Doctors challenge whisky industry on minimum price rules

Man drinking beerImage source, PA
Image caption,
A legal challenge has delayed the introduction of minimum price legislation

A group of doctors has written an open letter to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) asking it to drop its opposition to minimum price rules for alcohol.

The Scottish parliament passed legislation two years ago, and it was scheduled to come into effect in 2013.

But the measure has been delayed by a legal challenge from the SWA.

It has argued that the legal requirement for alcoholic drinks to cost at least 50p per unit would be incompatible with European law.

A judge has ruled against the SWA, which has appealed against the decision.

The letter, backed by doctors and other supporters of the minimum price legislation, argues that 60 lives would already have been saved if the law had come into force as planned.

They accuse the SWA of delaying the legislation because it knows it would be effective and would cut into its profits.

They write: "The SWA has mirrored the tactics of the tobacco industry in delaying life-saving legislation. They oppose any measure that might affect their sizeable profits, no matter the obvious benefits to people's health.

"By taking this legal action, they are undermining the united view of the Scottish Parliament, ignoring the democratic process and costing taxpayers thousands of pounds in legal bills."

The letter concludes: "This is an appeal to the Scotch Whisky Association to immediately drop their legal challenge and bow to the will of the Scottish Parliament. It's the right thing to do."

The signatories include 22 senior doctors and campaigners including Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of BMA Scotland, Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of Alcohol Health Alliance and former chief medical officer Dr Mac Armstrong.

Dr Richard Watson, a GP in Glasgow who supports the pricing policy, said he saw alcohol-related harm every day.

"We've got a 24-year-old girl who has advanced alcoholic liver disease and is almost certain to die shortly," he said.

"When I was a medical student 30 years ago, nobody had alcoholic liver disease until they were in their 40s. But she's been drinking five or six litres of strong white cider daily since her early teens.

"This is the cheapest way of buying alcohol - it can cost as little as 18p per unit. Strong white cider is the sort of alcohol that will be seriously affected by minimum pricing."

The SWA has argued that the legislation, which was due to come into force on 1 April 2013, would have little effect on the heaviest drinkers.

Rosemary Gallagher, of the SWA, said: "Minimum unit pricing is an unfair and untargeted policy that penalises responsible drinkers, especially those on lower incomes.

"It impacts poorer people in society and will have little effect on the highest earners who make up the majority of hazardous and harmful drinkers."

David Frost, chief executive of the SWA, said the case for minimum pricing was based on modelling, not concrete evidence.

He added: "The SWA has consistently called for the legal case to be fast-tracked to the European Court of Justice so that we can speed up the process, but the Scottish government refused to agree to this move.

"I regret that the debate on alcohol policy has become so polarised."

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