Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:46 pm on 25th October 2007.

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Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 3:46 pm, 25th October 2007

I welcome alcohol awareness week and its efforts to encourage sensible drinking. However, as other members highlighted, an unhealthy attitude towards alcohol remains across all sectors in Scotland. The abuse of alcohol not only damages the individual concerned but has a major impact on friends, families and communities—Mr Gibson spoke powerfully about that.

It is undeniable that alcohol costs our society dear in many ways. We are witnessing an explosion in alcohol-related health problems, while alcohol-related violence and other antisocial behaviour remain unacceptably high. Underage drinking rates are also worrying. The latest SALSUS national report shows that 36 per cent of 15-year-olds and 14 per cent of 13-year-olds reported drinking alcohol in the last week. However, it would be wrong to think that unhealthy drinking is confined to young people, men, deprived areas or city centres at the weekend. Unhealthy relationships with alcohol exist in families of all backgrounds, in all areas of Scotland and across all age groups.

Those are the problems, but what can we do about them? I will focus on two alcohol-related issues in particular: underage drinking and drinking in pregnancy. I will try not to repeat points that Mr Gibson made, many of which I agree with.

For young people, alcohol can be a gateway to risky behaviour—unprotected sex, violence and, more generally, an air of invincibility. Early alcohol misuse can be an introduction to illegal drugs or to smoking under age. Also, drinking under age can lead to a legacy of misusing alcohol later in life. Many members represent communities where the extreme antisocial behaviour that is driven by underage drinking is threatening and highly disruptive. In the environment of the inevitably macho group mentality of teenagers—boys and girls—binge drinking can and has become the norm. If binge drinking is acceptable at 12 or 13, by the time a young person reaches 18, unhealthy drinking habits will already be entrenched and ingrained. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary accepts Labour's amendment on that issue.

The proper enforcement of the age limit for buying alcohol is crucial. The rise in the age for purchasing tobacco to 18 gives the Parliament an opportunity to introduce new measures to enforce rigorously the age limits that we have in place. I hope that, along with any new initiatives on underage drinking, resources will be provided for proper enforcement of the age restrictions for smoking and alcohol consumption. Too many retailers regularly sell alcohol to people who are under age.

I also urge an extension of the test-purchasing scheme. The results of the pilot that was conducted in Fife were worrying: 26 per cent of retailers in west Fife and 16 per cent of those in east Fife failed the test purchase. Retailers should be supported in enforcing age restrictions, but there should also be heavy punishments for those who are caught selling to underage children.

As well as working to reduce the supply of alcohol for underage drinking, we need to reduce the demand. In my region, the Drug and Alcohol Project (Levenmouth) started an initiative in partnership with Fife Constabulary that targets underage drinking and deals with it holistically. The initiative is one of the first of its kind. When an underage drinker is picked up by the police, they are referred as a case to project workers at DAPL, who visit the family and work through any related issues with them. Working in that way, we can try to tackle the root causes of underage drinking. It is essential that projects such as DAPL have secure funding to provide a much-needed community service.

The second issue that I highlight is alcohol and pregnancy. From the moment a woman becomes pregnant, she begins to influence the future child's life chances. Her decisions on smoking, alcohol, diet and her own well-being all have implications for the future child. The lack of clarity in the recommended drinking levels and information on the potential health impacts of alcohol has made it difficult to deliver a coherent message to pregnant women. At the extreme, alcohol can cause permanent damage to embryos while they develop in the womb and can cause foetal alcohol syndrome, which permanently impairs brain and nervous system functions. However, there are increasing concerns that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a wide range of disorders and there has been a clear move towards supporting a precautionary principle.

Although it is socially acceptable for women to avoid soft cheese and peanuts during pregnancy, avoiding alcohol seems to be a different matter. The unhealthy relationship with alcohol that we have in this country seems to make abstinence from certain risky foods far easier than abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy. However, the evidence is inconclusive and the matter must be approached in a sensitive and reasonable manner. Women must be able to make informed decisions. To enable that, the Government must work closely with the medical profession; guidance on alcohol consumption should contain specific advice on drinking and pregnancy; and any voluntary labelling initiative with alcohol producers should include information on the risks and potential consequences of drinking while pregnant.

Alcohol awareness week is about changing our drinking culture. The Scottish Parliament has done much to recognise Scotland's problems with alcohol. Although problem drinking is an issue throughout the UK, Scotland has particular health, crime and social consequences that arise from our relationship with alcohol, and we all have a responsibility to recognise and address that.