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Health board welcomes alcohol price ruling

Each unit of alcohol will have a minimum cost, with 50p the preferred rate. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

NHS Shetland has welcomed news that Scotland is to become the first country in the world to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

The long-mooted legislation could be in place next year after it was given the final go-ahead by the UK Supreme Court on Wednesday following a legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association.

NHS Shetland public health principal and vice chair of the isles’ alcohol and drug partnership Elizabeth Robinson welcomed the news and said it is currently “very easy to drink way too much for not very much”.

It means that alcoholic drinks will be sold with a minimum cost per unit, likely to be 50p, resulting in four 440ml cans of five per cent lager costing at least £4.40, or a bottle of 12 per cent wine costing no less than £4.50.

NHS Shetland's Elizabeth Robinson says the supreme court ruling is good news.

The move, which the Scottish Government hopes will reduce binge-drinking on cheaper alcohol, is not likely to affect the cost of drinks in pubs as they already tend to charge over the minimum cost.

The extra money raised from sales would not act as a tax and instead would go directly to the retailer.

It has been estimated that a minimum 50p unit pricing would result in 121 fewer deaths a year in Scotland after 20 years of the law being in place, with a reduction in hospital admissions of 2,000 per annum.

“There are a huge number of deaths from alcohol across Scotland every single year and for people who drink heavily, even small reductions will have really big health benefits, and can save lives,” Robinson told Shetland News.

“And we also know that for people who are trying to lose weight, sometimes it’s the amount of alcohol and calories that are in alcohol that make a difference.

“If it means people drink less and drink more sensibly and drink maybe for pace and for quality rather than to get drunk, then it’s absolutely a positive thing.”

Robinson added that the health board has had a number of local GPs describing the pricing as the most “significant step that the government could make” and said it has heard from alcohol users in Shetland first hand that the plans would likely have a positive effect on them.

“We’ve spoken to people who are recovering from alcohol dependency who are really clear that it was cheap, strong cider that they were drinking when they were at their lowest point,” she said.

Research from Alcohol Focus Scotland said that people could drink their maximum recommended weekly limit of alcohol – 14 units – for just £2.52 by purchasing a brand of strong cider.

In 2012 MSPs backed the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill in the Scottish Parliament but the Scotch Whisky Association claimed it would breach European laws and argued that it would affect the free trade of products.

Health secretary Shona Robison said Wednesday’s news was a “historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol”.

Last year a report from NHS Shetland examining the accessibility of alcohol in the isles concluded that there is “overprovision” of supermarkets and off-licences selling alcohol within Lerwick.

It also found that more than a third of women and nearly half of men exceeded the recommended amount of alcohol daily or weekly.

But Robinson said the minimum pricing move could have a much wider impact than just on the health of the drinker.

“I think it’s not just good news for the health service, but I think we forget about the harm to families that break down because of alcohol misuse and the number of pepole who are in the criminal justice system because of alcohol misuse,” she said.

“There are people in care homes in Shetland because of alcohol misuse. So we’re not just talking about the health service, we’re talking about the public sector generally, and family life.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott also welcomed the supreme court ruling.

“Tackling the damaging impact that alcohol has on too many lives is important as part of public health,” he said.

“This measure should assist in that and the government will need to assess what difference it makes to sales of alcohol.”

SNP list MSP for the Highlands and Islands Maree Todd said she was “absolutely delighted” by the verdict and said “we should be proud of our pioneering approach that will benefit the Highlands and Islands and Scotland for generations.”