Ditching Diageo's drams is a Scot's duty

As the booze giant awaits this week's verdict on its appeal against a minimum price for alcohol, Scotland continues to count the cost of abuse

Share

Talisker and Knockando, Cragganmore and Lagavulin – the lovely names please the tongue as the malts do the palate. But for me and many Scottish friends these joys are off the table from next week. We're protesting against their proprietor, the giant boozemaker Diageo – owner of 24 whisky brands and, in their name, guilty of cynical obstruction of democracy and callous disregard for the toll of cheap alcohol in Scotland.

I live in Leith, a mile or so from where the Scotch Whisky Association, Diageo's lobbying proxy, has it headquarters on Edinburgh's calm and elegant Atholl Crescent. Things are rather different at our end of town: it's one of Scotland's poorest postcodes, and the damage done by alcohol is visible on prematurely aged faces, in the crime rates and on the streets. On Friday and Saturday nights Leith is loud with drunks, most of whom are young, and then with ambulances picking up the comatose. Some of them will be among the 20 people who die every week in Scotland of alcohol abuse.

The kids are not drinking malt whisky, of course. They are "pre-loading" at home on cheap schnapps and super-strength cider bought in supermarkets, before going on to pubs and clubs that advertise cocktails at £1 each.

In the Iceland supermarket on Easter Road, Leith, people queue for bargain frozen food and bargain booze. This is where Diageo and its friends make their real profits. There's all the cheapo brands – Fosters, Skol, San Miguel, strong Carlsberg Export (which Diageo makes in Ireland) all at pocket-money prices. There's also a "schnapps", V-Kat, which is 22 per cent alcohol, more than half the strength of vodka, at just £7.50 a litre and Frosty Jack's cider, 7.5 per cent alcohol at an amazing £3.50 for a 3-litre bottle.

As far as I can see, Frosty Jack's is the lowest priced supermarket-sold alcohol in Britain: probably the cheapest way we have to get off your face legally. Five adult men can drink themselves over their maximum recommended daily alcohol intake (and probably over the drink-drive limit) on just that 3-litre bottle. Mixing together shots of V-Kat with Frosty Jack's will get you drunk for less than £2: the tipple is a favourite pre-loader's cocktail.

In Scotland, we make the best whisky but have some of the worst rates of alcohol-related problems in western Europe. We buy 19 per cent more alcohol than the English in shops; 60 per cent of it is cheap, bought for under 50p a unit as "off-sales". The Scottish NHS believes half of all men and around a third of women may be drinking more than the recommended limits. Annually, damage from alcohol costs Scotland more than 1,000 lives and £3.6bn. You might have thought the whisky industry would take a lead in addressing the gruesome problem: instead, for nearly two years, it has worked hard to add to the bill.

Last month, the Scotch Whisky Association cheekily demanded that the Government lower excise duty. Next week, the SWA is back in the Scottish Court of Session trying to stop the introduction of a minimum price of 50p a unit on alcohol. That would hit Carlsberg Export, which is 40p a unit in Iceland, as well as Frosty Jack's (15.5p a unit) and V-Kat at 34p. But the minimum would hardly affect whisky: and the lowest price of a bottle of white wine would be around £4.20.

In November, the UK Government abandoned minimum alcohol prices for England. Despite the universal approval of the medical establishment, it bowed to ferocious booze industry lobbying led, of course, by Diageo.

But Scotland is different. We've made minimum price the law: a bill was passed with all-party support by the Scottish parliament back in May 2012.

However, the industry has been blocking the implementation ever since in the Scottish courts. Next week this goes to appeal. If they lose that, they are determined to go to the Supreme Court in London and thence to Europe. The legal costs to Scottish taxpayers is already into six figures, I'm told.

Why are Diageo and its friends – who include several European wine giants – doing this? (Not all the cheap booze industry is with them – beer and cider brewers Tennent Caledonian have backed the minimum price.) The truth is that the industry fears that the precedent set in Scotland will be followed by other cheap alcohol-afflicted nations across Europe.

The public explanations from the SWA are feeble. It says a nation has no right to make health legislation that might "distort trade". That the rich, not the poor, suffer from alcohol-related problems; that minimum unit price is proven not to be an effective measure. In fact, in Canada, where some form of minimum price is in force in nine of 10 provinces, alcohol-related deaths have dropped by nearly a third.

The SWA also claims that, since alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions have fallen slightly, in Scotland "existing measures" must be working. But as one health campaigner told me, the statistics show no more than that Scotland's problem has gone "from horrendous to dreadful". In December, the SWA pledged another £100,000 a year to alcohol education in Scotland. Given Diageo's £3bn annual profits, that seems a little mean. It won't even cover the Government's legal costs.

So: the boycott is on. You can find a full list of the whiskies to avoid under Members & Brands at scotch-whisky.org.uk. It may be depressing – there are a lot of good drams in the enemy camp. But there are a few who are not. I will be consoling myself mainly with Springbank in coming months – and if you join me, I'll raise a glass to you.

Alex Renton is author of 'Planet Carnivore! How cheap meat costs the earth'

twitter.com/@axrenton

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tulisa Contostavlos arrives to face drug charges at Southwark Crown Court on July 14, 2014  

Tulisa might have been attacked for being working class, but she still has to take some responsibility

Chloe Hamilton
Is Ed Miliband a natural born leader? Or could he become one?  

Wanted: a leader with the strength to withstand criticism from the media

Steve Richards
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried