Can minimum pricing help tackle alcoholism in Scotland?

Doctors hail Scottish government’s plan to address culture of excessive drinking, but doubts remain over its effect.

Scotland has the highest rates of alcohol-related hospitalisation in the United Kingdom [Alasdair Soussi/Al Jazeera]
Scotland has the highest rates of alcohol-related hospitalisation in the United Kingdom [Alasdair Soussi/Al Jazeera]

Glasgow, Scotland – At the height of his addiction to alcohol, Graham Wilson had resorted to drinking weedkiller in order to experience the “boozy feeling” that he felt was on the wane after years as a chronic alcoholic.

“I remembered a friend of mine had said to me that one tablespoon of weedkiller could kill off [Scotland‘s national football stadium] Hampden Park – and I thought if it could do that, imagine what sort of hit it would give me,” said the 40-year-old Glaswegian.

“But it didn’t at all; it nearly killed me.” 

Wilson had started drinking heavily from the age of 17, and it was not long before alcohol came to dominate his every waking minute. 

As he became ever more dependent on booze, rational thought was soon replaced by when and where he was going to get his next drink.

He lied and stole from his wife and parents, and suicide attempts followed. And even as he sat by the bedside of his father-in-law and watched him tragically die from the effects of alcohol abuse, his overriding thought was the base desire to fuel his addiction.

“I wasn’t drinking for the niceties of it,” Wilson told Al Jazeera. “I was drinking for the effects of it.”

Scotland has long had a notorious relationship with the bottle, but in November 2017, the Scottish government was given the green light to go ahead with its minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol strategy after the UK Supreme Court rebuffed a legal challenge that had been brought against the policy by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the representative body of Scotland’s most famous export.

Indeed, after the Scottish Parliament passed the legislation in 2012, the SWA took the case to Scotland’s highest court and the European Court of Justice, before it found its way to the highest court in the UK.

Life-saving initiative

The strategy’s May 2018 implementation by Scottish ministers will make Scotland the first country in the world to apply a minimum price per unit of alcohol, in what doctors have hailed as a life-saving initiative.

But the task awaiting the Scottish government is great. According to the Office for National Statistics, Scotland had the highest alcohol-specific death rate for males in 2016, at 30.9 deaths per 100,000 – much higher than the death rate in any of the UK’s other constituent countries.

The Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems also states on its website that “hospital admissions for alcoholic liver disease have more than quadrupled in the past 30 years” leaving “Scotland [with] one of the highest cirrhosis mortality rates in Western Europe”.

Those in the medical profession have largely welcomed the scheme, which will see a 50p-per-unit ($0.67) minimum pricing come into effect, thereby raising the price of the strongest, cheapest alcohol in order to eventually save 120 lives each year, according to a research estimate from the University of Sheffield. 

From my experience, I would go to any lengths to get a drink.

Graham Wilson, former alcoholic

Others, however, have cast doubt on its potential effectiveness. Critics include Wilson himself, who contends that at the height of his alcohol abuse, minimum pricing would have made very little difference to his own consumption.

“From my experience, I would go to any lengths to get a drink,” said Wilson, who has been sober for more than four years.

“So, if someone is craving a drink, putting the price up by a few pounds is not going to make a difference … because if you’re in the grips of [alcoholism] you go past the stage of wanting it – you need it.”

Kevin, from Glasgow’s east end, echoed Wilson’s sentiments.

The 48-year-old, who asked not to give his full name in order to preserve his anonymity, spoke to Al Jazeera from his temporary lodging at the Turning Point Scotland Glasgow Homelessness Service, a centre for those suffering from addiction.

There, he has spent months trying to break his destructive relationship with the bottle, which began when he was just 12.

“I would probably make my own wine and beer or try and buy drink from the black market, if I was drinking after any price rise,” Kevin said of the incoming policy, a form of which exists in countries such as Canada and Russia. 

Kevin, who was homeless before arriving at the centre and was consuming, on average, two bottles of whisky a day, added that it was “social deprivation” that compelled many in his position to drink to excess.

Alternative drugs

While many doctors believe that MUP will go some way towards cutting alcohol-related deaths, other experts contend that Scotland’s unique minimum price plans could also have some traction in combatting the nation’s drinking culture.

Claire Gallagher, service manager for the Turning Point Scotland centre, told Al Jazeera that she welcomes the scheme, but also has serious reservations.

“For the general public’s health, binge drinkers and young girls going out and getting [drunk] at the weekend, I think it will help, I really do,” Gallagher said. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that some cider drinks would soar in price by as much as 90 percent.

“But in terms of the client group I work with on a daily basis, it will either drive them to crime or prostitution,” she added. “And my biggest fear is that the price of street valium nowadays is so cheap, alcoholics who would normally stick to [booze] may then turn to something else.” 

Wilson, author of the Graham Wilson Undrunk blog, says that he has successfully put the days of drinking 15-20 pints of lager a day behind him, but that he still struggles with an instinctual compulsion to return to the bottle.

He is no longer friends with those he would drink with at various Glasgow bars for hours during the day. Instead, he is now a working man who runs marathons and speaks about the dangers of alcoholism at schools.

He regrets the toll that his years of alcohol abuse took on his own health and the health of his family, noting that his wife has shown signs of anxiety because of it.

But as the Scottish government looks ahead to implementing its pioneering policy with the hope of changing Scotland’s relationship with drink, the likes of Wilson know that his own battle with alcohol addiction is a lasting one.

“This is the biggest fight I’m going to have in my life,” he said. “And I do it all the time.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera

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