Malcolm supports the case for a minimum price on alcohol per unit
Debate on the Alcohol (etc) Act Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
My starting point for this subject is the health graph that I saw in a presentation from the chief medical officer a few months ago. The graph showed that chronic liver disease has increased by 500 per cent in Scotland over the past 25 years and, even more alarmingly, there has been an incredibly steep rise in the number of deaths over the past six or seven years. In response to that, there is no doubt that a range of measures is required. In that context, I welcome the proposals that have come forward from Labour's alcohol commission.

Where I differ from my colleagues, however, while respecting their views, is that I believe that minimum unit pricing must be part of the mix of measures and, indeed, is the glue that holds that mix together. Some people have highlighted culture as the problem, but price is a key part of culture. I do not believe that culture can be effectively changed without dealing with the dirt-cheap prices that are a roadblock to culture change.

There may well be public resistance when we talk about minimum unit pricing in the abstract but, when we make the issue concrete by talking about the cheaper-than-water offers in supermarkets, the public acknowledge the problem and agree that something must be done about price. The fact is that no alternative effective measures to deal with the price problem have been suggested this morning - although I accept that Labour's commission's proposals on price have still to be submitted.

I am as concerned as anyone about the potential effect on low-income drinkers, which is an issue that I certainly take very seriously, but let me make two points in response. First, as others have said, poorer communities suffer the most from alcohol. Indeed, the death rate in such communities is 13.5 times greater than in the most affluent communities.

Dr Simpson:
Does the member accept that there are more hazardous drinkers - the people who drink really heavily - in the richer income groups? What happens is that, when people get addicted and have become dependent on alcohol, they lose their jobs, their families and their houses and they drift down the social scale and end up in poverty. That is one of the main reasons why there are much higher rates of death in the lower groups.

Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I will come on to precisely those points.

My second point is that analysis of the Scottish health survey indicates that people in the poorest quintile are most likely to drink nothing, to drink little or to drink very heavily. In fact, 80 per cent of people in that quintile are in the first two categories and would be minimally affected. There is, of course, a significant minority of low-income drinkers who drink very heavily. Minimum unit pricing would impact on that group and would, all the evidence suggests, lead to a reduction in their alcohol consumption.

Low-income heavy drinkers would not be the only ones whose health would benefit, given that only 9 per cent of alcohol at 40p per unit or less is sold to moderate drinkers. As Professor Anne Ludbrook shows in her study, low-income groups are not the main purchasers of cheap alcohol, because so many of them drink moderately or do not drink at all.

A wealth of evidence shows that individuals with alcohol dependence are as price sensitive as the general population. Specific as well as general evidence for that is given by Dr Bruce Ritson at column 2840 in the Official Report of the Health and Sport Committee meeting of 3 March 2010. A recent, very interesting study - by Black, Gill and Chick - of 377 drinkers with severe harm who attended the Royal Edinburgh hospital concluded in its key findings:

"The lower the price that a patient paid per unit, the more units he/she consumed."

The Canadian experience is also relevant, although there was of course a different context in that country. The witnesses from Canada were extremely interesting because they backed minimum pricing as part of a basket of measures. They gave the interesting and very specific example of how, when the minimum price for 10 per cent alcohol beer was raised, its share of the market went down from 10 per cent to 2 per cent. Crucially, there was a reduction in alcohol harm and alcohol problems.

Therefore, today's debate is not just dependent on the University of Sheffield study. However, we should not rubbish that study, given that so much public health policy is based on modelling. Indeed, we in the Labour Party put forward the minimum wage, quite correctly, on the basis of modelling.

Arguments have been made, particularly by Murdo Fraser, about the effect on jobs that was cited in the evidence of the Scotch Whisky Association. In reply to that, I believe that we should consider the hundreds of jobs that have recently been lost in Scotland because of the problem of cheap supermarket drink. I think of the closure of the Threshers chain, which was attributed exclusively to that problem. When Cockburns of Leith in my constituency had to close, it also cited the supermarket booze problem. By the week, pubs are closing for the same reason. That is why the on-trade in general supports the policy.

The bill also contains other measures that I certainly support, such as the provisions on drinks promotions that will bring the off-trade into line with the requirements that were placed on the on-trade under the 2005 act. I also support the provisions for a social responsibility levy, which could offset any increase in supermarket profits. However, I rather feel that the increase in profits has been exaggerated, given that supermarkets have not exactly rushed to support the policy, which one might expect if the policy would boost their profits by hundreds of millions of pounds.

Minimum unit pricing is the glue that holds the mix of policies together. We should definitely consider the range of expert opinion that supports the policy: the World Health Organization, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the police and health experts by the hundred. I could have spent the six minutes of my speech listing the eminent people who support the policy - some people might have preferred it if I had done that - and I could take another hour to cite the international studies that have been done over the years that show the link between price and consumption. No effective alternative pricing mechanism has been proposed today, so we must support the bill with the inclusion of minimum unit pricing.
June 10th 2010 (Column 27183-6)