A Level Playing Field

Five European Union member states (Bulgaria, France, Portugal, Italy and Spain) are currently circulating menacingly around Scotland’s plan to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, their argument that the cost increase would contravene EU trade laws gathering momentum. The Scottish Health Secretary, Alex Neil, has until December 27th to prove that the pricing measure can be objectively justified on public health grounds. Despite the European Commission supporting the notion of tackling alcohol abuse within European member states, it too has lodged a formal objection to Scotland’s proposed legislation.

The Scotch Whisky Association has also raised a challenge to the price per unit policy, seeking a judicial review in the Court of Session, Edinburgh. The SWA has voiced the same concerns as the five EU wine-producing countries, all of whom are insistent that the law would distort the drinks market in Scotland, thus breaching the free trade movement rules of the European Market, which state that all member states must operate on an economic level playing field.

One of the primary goals of the European Union is to enable the small countries of Europe to compete on the global stage, economically and politically. The Four Freedoms (goods, capital, services and people) were established in order to prevent any internal competition within the Continent, thus creating a strong, unified bloc, a valid contender to the US and the Asian economies. If Scotland introduces a price increase on alcohol, those with a vested interest in the drinks industry are adamant that the playing field will no longer be level; they are beginning to feel the heat (in the same way that the tobacco giants first feared for their security when the early discussions regarding the smoking ban began to be heard). If alcohol goes the same way as cigarettes, the effect on the wallets of the alcohol producers would be catastrophic.

Europeans drink a lot of alcohol. The ‘Continental’ way of introducing our children to booze at an early age is a fallacy; France has one of the world’s highest mortality rates for cirrhosis of the liver, Germany has witnessed a sharp increase in youth binge drinking in the last ten years, and 96% of fifteen year old Danes consider themselves ‘drinkers.’ In 2005, each person (on average) in the world drank 6.1 litres of pure alcohol (statistics from WHO), and the most prolific drinkers are to be found in Europe, particularly in the former Eastern Bloc countries. The swamp of booze in which the Scots are perceived to be sinking in, is far more widespread than just north of England’s borders. Europeans drink to excess and their consumption of wine, beer and spirits is colossal; consumer expenditure on alcoholic beverages in the UK alone in 2010 was upwards of forty billion pounds.

Clearly there is a lot at stake for the drinks industry and, just like the tobacco giants before them, its key proponents are not going to sit back and watch their profits take a nosedive in the name of saving a few lives. After all, if people drank responsibly, there would be no health issue. If fingers are stuck far enough in to ears, then liability for the deaths and violence, domestic misery and ravaged health of those who imbibe a little bit more than is considered ‘responsible,’ will fall to the realm of society that is commonly reserved for those at fault; the alcoholics, the addicts, the down-and-outs and the chavs.

Here lies the difference between alcohol and tobacco; it is a widely held perception that you can drink alcohol and not become an alcoholic. Conversely, you cannot smoke cigarettes without becoming a nicotine addict. Those who smoke are held captive; they are addicted beyond their control, victims of the evil tobacco giants. People who drink enough alcohol to damage their health, however, are irresponsible, uncivilised and bereft of self-respect. They have but themselves to blame for their downfall.

This attitude is what the drinks industry will rely upon in their attempts to prevent the Scottish parliament from going ahead with their minimum pricing policy. It is an attitude that is inhumane and unreasonable, and comparable with releasing cocaine on to the mass market, only to leave those who cannot control their intake to fend for themselves, whilst the drug barons cream the massive profits off the associated revenue.

That would never be allowed to happen; what makes the drinks industry so different?

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