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Lifestyle choice

Brian Taylor | 15:18 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009

A sheriff of my acquaintance once hosted a Christmas party for the sundry QCs, advocates and solicitors in his patch.

He served them all with the tonic wine which is made by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast.

When they queried his choice of tipple, he told them he was keen to put them in touch with their client base.

Perhaps Kenny MacAskill had something comparable in mind when he described Buckfast as a "designer drink". Its consumption, he suggested, was something of a lifestyle choice.

Mr MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, was answering questions from the wicked media in re his government's proposed clampdown on alcohol abuse.

Why, we wanted to know, would the measures not affect Buckfast when they would increase the price of discounted white cider, vodka and whisky?

The answer was that Buckfast was relatively expensive at the moment, as calculated via alcohol by volume or abv.

Raising sights

Still relatively, the minister was unconcerned. The general package would work.

This little vignette perhaps highlights the problems which have pursued ministers in their efforts to tackle Scotland's addiction to alcohol.

The wicked media and those in the trade spotlight individual anomalies.

Ministers, entirely understandably, urge us to raise our sights and consider the cost of booze, in both senses.

The relative (that word again) decline in the cost of drink, down some 69% compared to earnings over the past couple of decades.

The cost to Scotland, an estimated £2.25bn in lost work days and health care.

And so ministers plan to act, with price the primary lever.

Brutal arithmetic

Minimum prices for drink, an end to "two-for-one" deals, a curb on marketing, a social responsibility fee, perhaps levied on big retailers like superpubs.

Recognising parliamentary arithmetic, ministers have now shelved plans for a Scotland-wide ban on off sales to those aged under 21.

Instead, they'll encourage councils to try this locally, where there's demand or police pressure.

What's the logic there? Ministers still back raising the age for off sales to 21 - but know they could not get that past sceptical MSPs. Hence the new scheme.

But the concept of localisation also needs Holyrood approval - and that may not be forthcoming.

Retailers, especially small retailers, are unhappy. They say they're being expected to act as "social police" for the government, tackling a problem in shops which has wider roots.

Not true, say ministers. To be fair, their published document today goes to great lengths to stress everyone in Scotland must play their part.

It stresses the additional resources for education and prevention.

But, says the government, there is evidence available: cut the price of drink, increase the number of hospital admissions.

Given that brutal arithmetic, they say they must act in the manner outlined today.


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