dewarsThe exploits of the Buckfast Triangle has been in the news recently. But here, Alex Renton explores the other end of corporate booze culture.
The Scotch Whisky Association is back in court again this week pursuing the bizarre notion that a state should not be able to impose taxation in order to tackle a threat to health. It is an ongoing act of vandalism committed, shamefully, by our greatest export industry. If it loses this appeal in the Court of Sesssion, as it probably will, the SWA and its friends -the booze giant Diageo and some of Europe’s wine conglomerates – plan to pursue the matter onwards, to the London Supreme Court and then in the European arenas.
This will take years – till 2017 at least, by the industry’s own admission. It is an historic obstruction of democracy. Scotland’s government passed the law bringing in a minimum alcohol price of 50p a unit in May 2012. It had all-party support. The Queen, who likes a dram, has signed it.
That act of lese-majesté  is not, of course, the worst sin of the whisky barons. Scotland’s problem with alcohol is more severe than England’s, worse than most of Western Europe’s. The latest government figures say that we’re still losing 20 lives a week – and the cost to the taxpayer of alcohol-related damage is £3.6bn a year. If you believe the figures from Canada, where nine out of ten provinces have some form of minimum unit price (MUP), a third of alcohol-related deaths might have been avoided. That’s nearly 600 deaths in Scotland, in the year and a half since the law was passed, but not implemented. We may not be able to lay all those at the SWA’s door, but there is blood on the Association’s hands and there will be more.
Whisky is of course not the issue here. It’s hard to find brands that sell for less than the £14 for a 70cl bottle which will be the lowest price a standard strength whisky can be sold at when, eventually, the legislation is enacted. It’s about the right of the big manufacturers to sell cheap grain alcohol and super-strength beer and cider. In Leith, where I live, I’m told by teenagers that you can get drunk for just two or three pounds by mixing V-Kat “schnapps” (34p a unit) with Frosty Jack’s cider (7.5% alcohol, 15.5p a unit).
Frosty Jack’s is now the UK’s second most popular cider: in Iceland on Easter Road you can buy a 3 litre bottle of it for £3.50 – enough to make four adult men unfit to legally drive a car.  One of the many mysteries of the minimum price argument is that so many small whisky distilleries, whose product would never be touched by a minimum price, want to support the rights of the big booze giants to sell booze in a way that gets the stuff such a bad name.
The industry PR is of course written by the giants. They are still trotting out the same tired arguments against MUP that we heard five years ago. I won’t run through them all again.(There’s an interesting debate here from 2010 between Lesley Riddoch and Ken Robertson of Diageo) But this week the SWA is still protesting that alcohol abuse and cheap alcohol are not related, when all the expert opinion  is the other way. It still insists that minimum price controls are ineffective and that the small decline in Scottish hospital admissions for alcohol-related issues shows that educational measures are working. The only new contribution is a promise of £100,000 a year for more education about booze. This is rather less than the legal challenge is costing the Scottish taxpayer.
There are two debates around MUP that are worth getting into. One is about poverty and the other about the industry’s economic contribution to Scotland. Jobs in the whisky industry are something we need. But, as we’ve seen in the past, Diageo shows shaky commitment to Scotland, turning local distilleries into shells, cutting jobs, centralising production and moving its administration off shore. An interesting  analysis by Robin McAlpine for the Jimmy Reid Foundation asks how an industry built entirely on Scottish assets, with exports of £4bn a year, can actually contribute so little to the economy – he puts it at just £400m a year. “Culturally, whisky is of enormous importance to Scotland. Economically it just isn’t” writes McAlpine.
Recently the SWA and Diageo have been lobbying for excise duty on whisky to be lowered. There is an argument for that – and perhaps a compromise to the current argument. Lower excise duty in return for an introduction of MUP?  It might run, but for that we would need a Scotland that was able to set its own excise rates. That we will have an opportunity to achieve in September.
Under MUP the  cheapest alcohol would be more expensive: cut-price supermarket beer would rise by about 20%.This would of course first hurt those with least money. In these times, none of us could be comfortable with that, and it’s an issue the industry PR plays o. But the hard fact is that alcohol is historically cheap. As with the food system, rational price structures have been perverted by  the cruel pressures of monopolistic modern retail and its value” marketing. According to the Institute  of Alcohol studies booze is 44% more “affordable” than it was 30 years ago. If alcohol is sold below the cost of manufacture as a loss-leader to encourage people into shops, that’s as wrong as selling tobacco to children.
I don’t believe – as the SWA public relations people do – that cheap alcohol is a boon to the poor. Alcohol abuse keeps people in poverty. It impoverishes the nation in ways that reach far beyond the health budget. It is one of the key elements of this country’s dreadful health statistics – which are largely centred on the lowest income groups. Let’s help the poor in a rational way – by addressing poverty.
There is a new petition calling on the SWA and Diageo to drop their endless legal harassment of the people of Scotland. (In England the cause is already lost: the alcohol lobby has strong-armed the government to u-turn on David Cameron’s 2012 pledge for an MUp). I would also call for a boycott of the brands of the members of the SWA. That doesn’t leave many. But there’s a marketing opportunity for a quick-thinking whisky label. How about a good highland blend that promises jobs, investment, and no super-strength cider on the side?
Now that would be something to raise a glass to…