In terms of the ongoing culture war in relation to alcohol, there have been three signal developments over the past 12 months that I think will reverberate over the course of 2017. They are: the development, and publication in January this year, of the UK CMOs’ new, ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines; the establishment of the House of Lords all-party committee inquiring into the Licensing Act 2003; and the decision by the Scottish Inner Court of Sessions that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is, after all, lawful – a decision which the Scotch whisky association (SWA) has now announced it will appeal to the Supreme Court in London.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and what the likely developments mean for the trade in beverage alcohol:
The ‘low-risk’ guidelines
The real significance of the new alcohol drinking guidelines is not that they set a new, low-risk level of 14 units a week alcohol consumption for both men and women, but the assertion that there is “no safe level of consumption”. Any pretence that official advice on alcohol consumption was about influencing drinking behaviour, and encouraging moderate consumption, was destroyed when the new ‘low-risk’ guideline was set at a level that was widely derided by the drinking public and the industry alike as having no basis in the reality of peoples’ drinking habits. Since “public health” has no belief in the efficacy of education as a driver of social change, because they believe it’s a soft option embraced by Big Alcohol as a means of warding-off real change, the only purpose of the new guidelines was to influence public policy. Specifically, alcohol policy.
Fundamental to this latest attempt to demonise alcohol is a determined effort at science-denial. Denial that there are any health benefits to moderate alcohol consumption despite decades of science showing that regular, moderate drinking results in lower all-cause mortality and greater longevity than that associated with abstinence. Coupled with this is the attempt to link low and moderate consumption of alcohol with a range of cancers on the basis of, largely, very weak epidemiological associations.
By establishing the “no safe level of consumption” and the “every time I reach for a glass of wine I think of the cancer risk” mantras, “public health” seeks to establish through propaganda what it can’t establish through science: that alcohol can’t be part of a healthy lifestyle.
The House of Lords committee on the Licensing Act 2003
The positive aspect of this review of the effectiveness of the Licensing Act 2003 is that, by all accounts, their Lordships really do “get it” – they are very much aware of the issues and the differences of opinion and are seeking evidence. My concern at the outset of this inquiry is that it was just a cover for seeking the introduction of a fifth licensing objective – ‘Promoting and Protecting Public Health’, or even ‘Promoting and Protecting Health and Welfare’.
If we were to see the introduction of a ‘health’ licensing objective, then this would open the door to all the career alcophobes of so-called “public health” like James Nicholls from Alcohol Research UK, and Jon Foster from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, to encourage local PCTs to oppose applications for new licences. It’s probably not a practical possibility for them to do this for every application, but if your fundamental belief is that it’s the availability of alcohol that drives consumption and harm, then under what circumstances wouldn’t you object?
Minimum unit pricing
The Scottish Parliament legislated to introduce this in 2012. Since then it has been subject to legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others in respect of whether its implementation was contrary to European Union competition law. In Scotland the Outer Court of Sessions ruled it was legal, but then the Inner Court of Sessions quashed that decision and sent it off to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to be determined. The ECJ pretty much gave it the thumbs down, but returned it to the Scottish courts to determine. They gave it the thumbs up!
The position now is that the SWA wants to appeal this to the Supreme Court in London and have lodged an application with the Scottish Court for leave to appeal. The SWA’s decision to appeal has, of course, been subject to expressions of faux outrage by the cranks at Alcohol Focus Scotland who have characterised the decision to appeal as an affront to democracy! Comments like “it beggars belief” etc., etc.
I am opposed to MUP because I think it is a bad policy; if it also turns out, eventually, to be unlawful, then I think that would be enormously helpful. But, then we’re supposed to be leaving the EU aren’t we? So whether we continue to be subject to ECJ rulings will depend on whether we want access to the single market.
All three of these issues will continue to make waves in the coming year. Watch this space!