Scotland: Continuing to Lead the Way on Alcohol Policy in the UK

The Scottish Government pride themselves for introducing bold measures to tackle the country’s poor health record and frequently assert that they ‘lead the UK’ on public health issues, seeking to distinguish Scotland, and their administration, from the approach taken at Westminster. In fact, in many instances, Westminster follows the example set by Holyrood.

The pioneering approach on curbing tobacco use by Scotland’s politicians has been replicated in regard to alcohol policy, something which will no doubt continue with the publication of the Scottish Government’s Refreshed Alcohol Strategy expected in Summer 2017.

The SNP and Alcohol Policy: From Bans to MUP

Following the ground-breaking smoking ban introduced by the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive, the SNP Scottish Government wanted to create a similarly innovative health legacy to confront the problems associated with alcohol use.

In 2009, the then Cabinet Secretary for Health, Nicola Sturgeon published Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol: A Framework for Action, which was the first government strategy in the UK to take a whole population approach to tackling alcohol-related harm. As part of the imaginatively titled Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act, the Scottish Government banned multi-buy promotions in supermarkets, preventing consumers from benefiting from things like buy-one-get-one-free deals.

However, Scottish Ministers believe that the overall effectiveness of their alcohol strategy has been constrained by a failure to implement Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol (MUP) – originally passed as far back as May 2012 – which has been the subject of an ongoing legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association. Plans for a MUP in England and Wales were shelved in 2014 (with Theresa May regarded as influential behind forcing a rethink) but the Scottish Government have steadfastly refused to relent.

After the legal ping pong between Scottish and European Courts over the past few years, the final battle in the long running saga on MUP will take place at the UK Supreme Court after the SWA received notification that they had been granted leave to appeal in December 2016.

What Can We Expect in the Scottish Government’s Refreshed Alcohol Strategy?

Whatever the outcome at the UK Supreme Court, we can expect a raft of new measures from the Scottish Government following the publication of their Refreshed Alcohol Strategy this summer.

Public health groups with the ear of the Scottish Government have already been actively lobbying for further restrictions on alcohol sales and promotions, ranging from separate checkouts at supermarkets; introducing a social responsibility levy; phasing out alcohol sponsorship of sport, music and cultural events; and banning all special offers on alcohol in retail outlets.

With the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, Shona Robison stating that changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol was “unfinished business”, there can be no doubt that the Scottish Government will want to continue to lead the UK on tackling the problems associated with alcohol. Indeed, notwithstanding MUP, the Scottish Government have not shied away from taking controversial and unpopular measures.

Keeping this in mind, industry and business should therefore be ready for all eventualities with the new refreshed strategy.