Alcohol age rise plan rejected

Scottish government plans to allow the minimum age for buying alcohol from off-sales to be raised from 18 to 21 have been rejected by MSPs.

The SNP administration wanted to let local licensing boards ban off-licence sales to under-21s but the move was blocked by Holyrood's health committee.

It is the latest blow to the Scottish government's Alcohol Bill.

Last week, Labour, Lib Dem and Tory MSPs voted to remove a measure setting a minimum price for alcohol.

Opposition MSPs have now said the move to raise the purchase age would discriminate against young people.

Labour committee member Dr Richard Simpson said: "It's unfair if young people are only able to consume alcohol in a pub or restaurant but cannot buy a bottle of wine to have at home while watching the television.

"We're all aware of binge drinking being a problem for some young people but this can't be tackled by discriminating against all young people, even in a specific area."

Dr Simpson also raised concerns that teenagers would travel to neighbouring areas without restrictions, moving the problem somewhere else.

Existing laws should be better used to tackle the issue, he said.

Tory MSP Mary Scanlon and Ross Finnie of the Lib Dems pointed to concerns from the Grocers' Federation that 18-year-olds could still sell alcohol and obtain licences to do so.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said it was important not to focus solely on young people when tackling alcohol issues.

But she told the committee that 2,000 people under the age of 20 were discharged from hospitals in 2007-08 with an alcohol-related diagnosis.

Other measures in the Alcohol Bill include a ban on drink promotions, a retailers' social responsibility fee and tighter proof of age rules.

But Ms Sturgeon said it was important to see the Alcohol Bill as a series of measures to tackle drink-related problems.

She said: "We should not see any particular initiative as a magic bullet - we need a strong package of measures. This initiative is simply another tool in the box."

The opposition move was backed by Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland.

He said: "It seems totally wrong that someone could vote, pay taxes and bring up a family but not buy alcohol for their own home."

The SNP has the option of trying to re-insert the measure it when parliament debates the Alcohol Bill at its third and final stage.

The government has already said it will take a similar course of action with its plan to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol at 45p.

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