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

Alex Renton
Sunday 02 February 2014 01:00 GMT
A worker unloads Smirnoff
A worker unloads Smirnoff

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'


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