Alcohol

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:04 pm on 25th October 2007.

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Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 4:04 pm, 25th October 2007

I would like to address three issues. The first is the size of the problem. The second is the existing recommendations for maximum consumption. The third is the vexed issue of discounting.

All members have alluded to the size of the problem. I have heard a lot of statistics but not the figure that I am about to give to the chamber, which may put the issue on a sensible footing. The average intake of alcohol in the UK, as calculated by HM Revenue and Customs, is around 19g per day. If we assume that only adults over 16 drink alcohol—clearly a doubtful assumption, but it will get us a number—that equates to 23g per day, which is almost 3 units per day. Even though the figure makes no allowance for any alcohol that may be imported from the continent or for anything that may find its way into the system illegally, that means that every man and woman over the age of 16 in the UK population drinks the equivalent of a pint and a half every day of every week of every year of their lives. That number gives members some idea of the problem that exists, because it is an average—we all know folk who drink nothing like that much.

The recommendations to which Kenneth Gibson referred have been criticised recently for being no more than guesswork. We would really like science and epidemiologists to tell us something like the following: every member of the population who consumes more than 1,000mg per week of vitamin G17 will be fine, but every member of the population who does not will get fungiitis after 20 years. The example is completely made up, so members should not quote me on it. The point is that the statistics do not come out like that. The statistics lean in one direction or another, and that will always be the case. The best answer that we can get is that the relative risk of liver disease is twice as great in men and women who drink between two and three units of alcohol per day as it is in those who drink one unit or less. If people drink four or more units per day, the risk is about five to seven times as great. That is a real figure. The nature of the available science is such that we can do no more than say that four units sounds like a sensible norm. I ask folk to recognise that all recommendations are based on that kind of science and not to expect the science to be more accurate than that—frankly, it is not going to be.

Bill Aitken, who is no longer in the chamber, argued against measures to prevent discounting. From my experience of working in a soap business, I know that there are good reasons for putting bars of soap in packs of four. It makes life a great deal easier in the factory and in the transport system. The product is also much easier to handle in the shop, and it is much easier for people to put into their bags and troll off home with. There is real value in bundling that works its way right the way through the system and reduces costs for all concerned. There must be a similar effect with cans and bottles of alcoholic drinks, although I suspect that it is rather smaller.

However, I have no problem in recognising that alcohol is different; in large quantities, it is dangerous stuff. I would have no problem in saying that the unit price of my can or bottle must be the same, regardless of whether I buy one or 20. If that causes other people a problem, perhaps they should think about why that is the case. Given that many folk are not very good at resisting what they think is a bargain, and those are probably the kind of people who will suffer from an alcohol problem, we owe it to them to eliminate the kind of bargains that are doing them no good at all. We should have the courage of our convictions on the issue. Discounting is not allowed in pubs, and it is not obvious to me why it should be permitted in shops or supermarkets.