Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 283)



  280. Thank you for that. Finally, health, which is a serious issue. Studies on alcohol abuse suggest that it is a growing and serious problem in Scotland, especially in Glasgow. A recent study by the Greater Glasgow Health Board estimated 30,000 males and 3,000 females drink more than twice the recommended weekly limit and that some 350 deaths per year can be attributed to alcohol abuse. Excessive drinking is also responsible for between 20-30 per cent of acute hospital admissions in Glasgow. What concerns do you as an industry have regarding the adverse health and social costs of alcohol abuse? What steps are you taking to address what is clearly a serious problem for Scottish society?
  (Mr Stewart) Richard is very active in this area.
  (Mr Gibb) The misuse of alcohol is a serious problem in Scotland, England, internationally. I think it does have to be put into the context of the fact that the sensible use of alcohol is potentially beneficial and, indeed, the sensible use of alcohol is accepted by Her Majesty's Government as part of a healthy lifestyle. I think the huge majority of people are doing that. The industry is involved in a number of measures to promote sensible drinking as the proper way to do it. You will be familiar with the activities of the Portman Group which our company is involved in, along with a number of other major companies, who actively promote both sensible drinking and, indeed, most recently are now piloting in Manchester, in fact, campaigns against binge drinking particularly amongst the young. They are very active in a number of initiatives in that area. Similarly, both the UK Government in respect of England and Wales and the Scottish Executive are pursuing significant reports on alcohol misuse and abuse. There is the Scottish Advisory Committee on Alcohol Misuse, in which the industry takes an active part, and I know that because I do it personally, looking at ways in which in a Scottish climate or, indeed, by comparison with international measures we can find ways of civilising alcohol consumption so that what is a pleasurable and potentially beneficial activity does not go astray. To take one very particular issue, I think we would continue to return to a pragmatic industry thing which is the question of licensing. Licensing and the creation of sensible licensed premises, of not putting everybody out at the same time, the things for civilising which I gave in response to Anne Begg's question about the change in licences. New licensed premises with plate glass windows serving food which attract women to come into pubs are part of the civilising process and the progression towards a more civilised licensing system. Scotland actually does have a more civilised one than England already but there are still changes that could be made in those respects. Again, the Scottish Committee actually accepts that, so there is a co-operation there. The industry will continue to be involved with all the bodies who are looking at what is the involvement of alcohol in a number of problems. Some of the problems are specific to alcohol, some of the biomedical ones, but some of them are broader social problems in which alcohol is involved and that has to be recognised as well. We will continue to be involved in all of those bodies and supporting all of those bodies who need to address these issues.

  281. It has been put to us that a unit of alcohol is a unit of alcohol regardless of in what form it is consumed. Do you have any view as to whether people are more likely to become alcoholics if they drink beer or wine or spirits?
  (Mr Gibb) My understanding is there is little medical evidence on the long-term movement towards addiction amongst those who become addicted. There are physiological differences in the impact of different drinks. Beer is a long drink, a relatively low alcohol drink, and in a lot of international jurisdictions there is an acceptance that beer, and to a lesser extent wine, has a different characteristic from what they would describe as hard liquor in those terms and in a health agenda in other markets there is an acceptance that there is a difference there. It is a complex issue but, in answer to your specific question, there is no evidence. One of the things that people do need to be aware of particularly in terms of alcohol and the young is that the very young in some cases will tend not to be too choosy about the form in which they are getting their alcohol and will adopt it on price. The delivery to them of very high alcohol products at an advantageous price regime I have to say would be catastrophic in social terms. The Chancellor took steps some time ago to address the issue in respect of strong cider, which was clearly a social issue, where the tax was raised significantly on strong cider because litre bottles of whatever it was was the most efficient way for the young to buy alcohol. Any change in the alcohol duty regime which may upset that balance would be a serious concern.

  282. It is alleged that Buckfast wine is a big problem in certain parts of Scotland. Do you think that similar measures that were applied to strong cider would be effective in dealing with products like Buckfast?
  (Mr Gibb) There are products in that category. It is an efficient alcohol cost per penny, to put it crudely in those terms. I think the examination of some of those issues is a sensible thing although the regime has gone slightly against those products but not as much as it might do.
  (Mr Stewart) We should also be aware of the immediate delivery of effect of some mixed drinks that are currently on the market. Beer is relatively benign, as Richard has identified, in terms of its alcohol effect and it is not something that you are going to down very quickly. We do know that in the young markets you are dealing with people who consume alcohol very rapidly and it is absorbed more rapidly into the bloodstream than it is with beer. There are differences associated particularly with hard liquor and that is you have the international attitude particularly to white spirits that you have around the world. Shots of tequila, tequila slammers, are consumed very rapidly, by definition, by comparison with a half pint or a pint of beer.
  (Mr Sharp) Spirit mixers, just as sweet fizzy drinks, are actually quite easy to consume because they are like Coca-Cola, it is a problem. I always think that beer and whisky is much more of a challenge to acquire a taste for. When I started drinking it was cider.

  283. We will not ask at what age that was. We have all been there. We have exhausted our questions, are there any final remarks which any or all of you would like to make to the Committee this morning?
  (Mr Stewart) Scotland led the way on licensing, it is a shame that it has not led the way on employment of 16-18 year olds in modern apprenticeships in licensed premises. I think that is a pity because we are in a very progressive industry and it is sad that we are not developing our labour forces as effectively as some of our friends in the South are now doing. We are doing it in the South but are not able to do it in Scotland. There are issues about regulation and the cost of regulation, particularly on pubs, that, unless they are addressed, will change social patterns in Scotland. That is the cumulative effect of the various duties and legislative impacts that are coming through in the market and that is to all our disadvantage.

  Chairman: Anyone else? No. In that case, can I thank you all very much for your evidence this morning, it has been a lengthy, interesting and enjoyable session. You have been very helpful to the Committee and for that, on behalf of the Committee, thank you very much.

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