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Holyrood needs to drop its alcohol pricing plan

Terry beardWhat is the most expensive pint in Scotland? The Bow bar in Edinburgh was charging £5.30 for a pint of Loch Ness IPA at the brewery’s recent rebrand launch.

That seems a bit steep, and I’ve yet to pay more. However this is not a criticism of Drumnadrochit’s fine ales, or even its pricing policy. The point is that alcohol ain’t cheap.

It has to be said that, fiver or not, the Bow bar was buzzing and there was no shortage of ale being supped. The truth is that few drinkers could say with any certainty how much it costs for a pint, or a nip of whisky, or one of those new-fangled cocktails that seem to be all the rage. Furthermore, adding a few pence, even 30 or 40 pence, to a unit of alcohol is unlikely to stop those who enjoy a tipple and also know they have to buy their round, whatever the cost.

So it is difficult to square this with the Scottish government’s desire to make it cost even more in an attempt to curb alcohol consumption.

The European court has ruled that the legislation passed in 2012 to set a minimum unit price on alcohol breaches EU law. This case has been weaving through various courts ever since and this latest judgement is another setback for the government, though not the final word which is now expected to be delivered in the Edinburgh Court of Session, or even the UK Supreme Court.

The Scotch Whisky Association has led the legal challenge, maintaining that hiking the price will not curb consumption and therefore will not cure the health and social problems associated with it.

The court, offering an alternative to MUP, has suggested “a tax measure” without being specific, although this would probably mean using the existing excise duties available.

However, this is not an option for the Scottish government. Only the Chancellor can impose taxes on alcohol.

This also divides opinion, and is invariably seen as bad for the industry and the wrong message to be sending around the world. Scotch is the country’s biggest export earner and is engaged in a never-ending battle overseas with importers over their own tax policies. Hiking taxes at home is hardly the best way to encourage foreign governments to cut theirs.

What is striking about this case is how the Scottish government invests considerable political support to the promotion of Scotland’s food and drink — and the Scotch whisky industry in particular — yet seems to have dug its heels in over this issue.

The whisky industry has offered to discuss other ways of achieving the government’s ends and has provided evidence to show that alcohol-related deaths have actually fallen.

It is surely time for Holyrood to accept that the MUP policy has failed and to drop its legal fight. It will not resolve the binge-drinking issue, but it does potentially threaten a key industry.

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