Scottish government Alcohol Bill plan pass key vote


The Scottish government's plans to tackle the country's historic alcohol abuse problems have passed their first parliamentary hurdle.

MSPs voted for the principles of the Alcohol Bill, although opposition parties have vowed to remove plans for minimum pricing at a later date.

Ministers said radical action was needed to tackle alcohol-related violence and health problems.

Opposition parties support other measures in the bill.

These include banning drink promotions, the ability to raise the age for buying alcohol, and bringing in a "social responsibility fee" for retailers who choose to sell alcohol.

But opposition parties argue setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol is probably illegal under European competition law.

They will combine at a later date to remove the measure from the legislation, which still needs to pass two further stages of scrutiny before becoming law.

Critics also argue the move punishes responsible drinkers, and have called for the specific targeting of cheap "problem drinks", such as fortified wine and strong cider.

The Scottish government points to research by York University which said alcohol misuse in Scotland was costing taxpayers between £2.4bn and £4.6bn a year.

However, ministers have yet to name their preferred minimum price for each unit of alcohol within a drink.

The Scottish Parliament also passed a Tory amendment demanding the removal of minimum pricing from the legislation.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon called on opposition leaders to "rise above party politics" and back minimum pricing, telling parliament the Alcohol Bill was supported by doctors, nurses, the police, churches and health experts.

"Our relationship with alcohol is no longer something that can be dismissed as part of our culture, nor can it be tackled solely through education," she said.

"Nor is our culture somehow separate from cheap alcohol."

Tory health spokesman Murdo Fraser said the SNP was "obsessed" with minimum pricing, and called on ministers to await the detail of UK government plans to ban sales of below-cost price alcohol and increases in duty targeted on problem and high-strength drinks.

"Minimum pricing as a policy has been overtaken by events - it is yesterday's solution," said Mr Fraser, adding: "Without knowing the price which will be set, it is impossible to say for sure whether or not minimum pricing would be legal."

Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson called for an effort to change drinking culture and accused Ms Sturgeon of being dishonest when talking about "overwhelming evidence" in favour of minimum pricing.

He said there was only one empirical piece of evidence published on minimum unit pricing, and that was on an Aboriginal community that did not have supermarkets.

Lib Dem health spokesman Ross Finnie said ministers had rushed the legislation, saying of minimum pricing: "It must have been obvious to the government that the parliament would wish to have debated the price.

"I cannot for the life of me understand why the government has not understood the wish of parliament in that regard."

The vote came after Scottish Labour published the interim findings of its own alcohol commission, which included a legal limit on the caffeine content of alcoholic drinks - a move which would effectively ban the tonic wine Buckfast.

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