Ian Swanson: Drinking in the Canadian experience of booze pricing

As a plan for a minimum alcohol cost moves forward, Political Editor IAN SWANSON, looks at its impact across the water

THERE’S an old joke about the Scotsman who saw an advert saying “Drink Canada Dry” and decided to go there and do so.

But if expert evidence is anything to go by, Canada’s way of dealing with alcohol may have something to teach Scotland.

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Minimum pricing is a key part of the Canadian system of regulation on alcohol and is seen as helping to reduce consumption, particularly of high-strength drinks.

Scotland’s alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world – and 23 per cent higher per head of population than England and Wales.

Excessive drinking is estimated to cost Scotland £3.56 billion each year, or £900 per adult. Three out of four young people who commit an offence say they were drunk at the time.

Around 65,000 Scottish children are estimated to be affected by parental alcohol misuse.

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The SNP’s plans to introduce minimum pricing here – thrown out by MSPs in 2010 – were approved in principle by the Scottish Parliament yesterday and are on course to become law by the end of the year. The Scottish Government has not yet announced what the price will be, but last time the proposal was 45p per unit.

At that level, the government said, minimum pricing would lead to 50 fewer deaths from alcohol-related harm within the first year, cut hospital admissions by 1200 a year, reduce violent crimes by 400 and mean 22,900 fewer days absence from work.

Nearly 70 per cent of alcohol in Scotland is now sold through off-licences because it is so much cheaper than pubs.

Canada has had minimum pricing for more than 20 years, though the form it takes varies from one province to another.

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As part of its evidence-taking on the issue, Holyrood’s health committee heard from Professor Timothy Stockwell, of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, who said studies had shown pricing and taxation were the most effective strategy for tackling the health effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

He said his latest research in British Columbia had found a ten per cent increase in the minimum price across the board resulted in a four per cent reduction in acute alcohol-related hospitalisations.

Jeff Newton, president of Canada’s National Brewers, has described how minimum pricing on high-strength beers had a major impact on public order problems in Ontario.

He said: “When minimum price on high-alcohol beer went into effect, it resulted in the market share of those products in a number of at-risk neighbourhoods declining from ten per cent to two per cent, which seemed to indicate that it can work if it’s properly employed.”

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The Ontario measure resulted in many higher-alcohol brands being taken off the market or having their alcohol content reduced.

The Canadian approach has won fans among Scotland’s medical experts.

Dr Peter Rice, chairman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, has argued it would be “very desirable” to follow Canada’s example of selling alcohol at high prices and only in specially-run nationalised shops.

He suggested a minimum price of 60p per unit, which would mean a can of Carlsberg lager could not be sold for less than £1.08, a pint of cider for less than £1.53, a bottle of wine for less than £6.30 or a bottle of blended whisky for under £16.30.

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Most medical opinion in Scotland backs minimum pricing. The Greens, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives voted for the legislation yesterday. And Prime Minister David Cameron is said to be planning a similar move south of the Border. But with the exception of Edinburgh Northern & Leith MSP Maclolm Chisholm, Labour at Holyrood has argued against the measure, pointing out higher alcohol prices will produce a £100 million-plus profits windfall for supermarkets. Labour this week produced a range of its own proposals, ranging from a ban on Buckfast to a crackdown on advertising in public places. The SNP has said it is willing to consider Labour’s ideas.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs yesterday there was “no single or simple solution” to Scotland’s alcohol problem. But she added: “No strategy will be complete without addressing price.”

Some wonder whether higher prices really will deter people from excess drinking. Labour’s Dr Richard Simpson claims the better-off will “simply shrug their shoulders and go on drinking as before”. But Ms Sturgeon says the evidence linking price and consumption is “irrefutable”.

The Scottish Government has agreed to add a sunset clause to the bill, which means minimum pricing will be reviewed in five years – and everyone can judge just how well the Canadian approach translates to Scotland.