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Scotland tackles alcohol crisis with minimum price law

"Drinking is seen as a joke in Scotland, something to be proud of, and that's a problem. We have to do something about it."
Image: Alcohol in Scotland
A liquor store displaying bottles and cans with price tags in the window in Glasgow before the new law kicked in.Andy Buchanan / AFP/Getty Images file

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The land of whisky is trying to kick its alcohol problem.

Scotland became the first country to impose minimum prices on booze when a new law took effect Tuesday.

The measure aims to save lives by dealing with what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called the nation's “unhealthy relationship with alcohol.”

More than a quarter of Scots reported drinking at hazardous or harmful levels in 2016, and there were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths reported that year, up 10 percent from 2015.

Happy-hour promotions were banned in 2009, but now officials determined to deal with the public health crisis are taking aim at cheap drinks and multipack deals in stores and supermarkets.

“For far too long, there was a kind of complacency that said, 'Scotland just drinks a lot, it’s part of our history, our culture, like the weather or the soil,'” said Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, an advisory group established by Scottish medical professionals. “The evidence showed that alcohol-related diseases and deaths were rising much more sharply than elsewhere, and I think that convinced politicians that things needed to change.”

"Alcohol is an integral part of Scottish life."

Scotland’s alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world, according to World Health Organization data; on average, Scots consume the equivalent of more than 13 liters (3.4 gallons) of pure alcohol a year, about 40 percent more than Americans (2.4 gallons).

“Alcohol is an integral part of Scottish life,” the Scottish government observed when it first proposed the change. “But there is also clear evidence that for a large section of the Scottish population their relationship with alcohol is damaging and harmful — to individuals, families, communities and to Scotland as a nation.”

While some U.S. states, such as Connecticut, have price controls on alcohol sales, most are a legacy of prohibition rather than modern public health policy.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Rice said of Scotland's new law.

'The cycle of chaos'

On a Friday night in Edinburgh, the bitterly cold weather doesn’t keep revellers away from bars and clubs.

“People get totally smashed at home because you can buy a whole bottle of spirits for the same price as a round of drinks in town,” 18-year-old Elisha Dharsi said. “I think the minimum price is a good idea. Drinking is seen as a joke in Scotland, something to be proud of, and that’s a problem. We have to do something about it.”

Image: Alcohol in Scotland
Elisha Dharsi.Chris Watt / for NBC News

Dan MacNeill, 30, has been drinking with co-workers since lunchtime; he has just paid $6.30 for a bottle of Budweiser at a trendy, glass-fronted bar on St. Andrew Square.

“If these prices don’t make people drink less then I don’t see that it would make any difference at the cheaper end,” he said. “I don’t see that anyone would change their habits.”

Outside the Abbotsford Bar — one of a string of historic pubs along Rose Street — Rhona Wood, 50, is with a bachelorette party drinking rum and cokes. (The bride-to-be, having drunk too much earlier, is back at the hotel already.)

Image: Alcohol in Scotland
Dan MacNeill.Chris Watt / for NBC News

Wood disagrees with Sturgeon’s assessment that Scotland has an alcohol problem.

“She had no right saying that. I don’t think it’s true,” Wood said. “I don’t see people here drinking more than anywhere else. I don’t have any alcohol at home.”

As glasses are being raised on Rose Street, former soldier Tam Begbie is already at work.

An Afghanistan war veteran, Begbie is one of a team of "Navigator" support workers employed by Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, a police-backed program. He spends his Friday and Saturday nights in the emergency room at Edinburgh’s main hospital, trying to steer patients struggling with alcohol and other issues onto a better path.

“Alcohol is a factor in the majority of cases I see, especially when people have been injured in a fight,” Begbie said. “Drinking is categorized as a cultural thing, something we are supposed to do in order to have fun, but the reality is it changes people’s lives to the point where they’re not in control.”

Image: Alcohol in Scotland
Tam Begbie.Chris Watt / for NBC News

Begbie sees emergency room visits as an opportunity to connect.

“People are often at their lowest, they realize they’ve got to a point where it has to stop, and it’s a good time to break the cycle of chaos,” the 28-year-old Begbie said.

Bargain shoppers

Scots are the biggest drinkers in the U.K., with average weekly sales of alcohol per adult 17 percent higher than in England and Wales, according to the Scottish government.

Authorities hope setting minimum prices will target excessive drinkers who, according to research, are more likely to be bargain shoppers compared to moderate drinkers. Further studies show excessive drinkers in deprived areas are up to 11 times more likely to come to harm than those in more affluent neighborhoods.

The impact of the new policy is being studied overseas. Ireland this year will become the second country to introduce minimum pricing, and the measure has earned Sturgeon a seat on a new public health task force led by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, and Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary.

Image: Pub in Glasgow, Scotland
A woman enjoys a drink in a pub in the Govan area of Glasgow, Scotland.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images file

The new law allows the government to set a minimum price per "unit" — equivalent to 10 milliliters (0.35 fluid ounces) of pure alcohol. The rate is expected to set the rate at 50 pence (66 cents) per unit.

While the cost of a typical pint of beer or a glass of wine in bars won’t need to change, the price of a 15-pack of Budweiser, for example, will rise $1.21, to $20.96.

A standard-size 24-ounce bottle of whisky will cost at least $19.80; in February, one was on sale in a supermarket for $15.50.

“This isn’t about the single malts and the famous brands because they already cost more than that,” said Rice, of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems and who is among the new law's architects. “But if you look down to the bottom shelf in the supermarket you see those nonbranded value bottles — that’s where the price is very low.”

Just the tonic

In Scotland’s rust belt, where the decline of coal and steel has left a legacy of high unemployment and social decay, Abdul Majid has run a small grocery store for 34 years.

Cheap beer and super-strength cider are popular with his customers, many of whom don’t have a car to go to large supermarkets or speciality retailers with lower prices.

“This is a typical working-class community,” he explains, “where local stores have disproportionately higher sales of stronger drinks.”

At his store in Bellshill, Lanarkshire — where life expectancy ranks the lowest in Scotland — a giant 101-ounce bottle of Frosty Jack cider (7.5 percent alcohol content) until recently sold for $5.65 but as of Tuesday costs at least $16.20.

Image: Frosty Jack cider
The price of Frosty Jack cider will more than double.Alastair Jamieson

“That’s what the serious drinkers go for,” he said. “It’s cheaper than some mineral water. In fact, they drink it like water.”

He supports the principle behind the pricing changes, but fears small stores like his will be targeted by shoplifters. He already keeps individual cans of cider under the counter to prevent theft.

“People need their hit, and if they can’t buy it they will attempt to steal it,” he said. “We need to be tackling the social issues behind it, such as why people drink too much, rather than spending millions on making it harder to get what they want.”

Majid also fears some will cross the English border, just 80 miles to the south, to buy products in bulk at lower prices to resell in his neighborhood. “People who don’t have much money will buy illegally if it’s cheaper,” he said.

As a Muslim, he sees how much alcohol is rooted in Scottish society. “I’ve never had a drink, and from my perspective everything people do is around drink,” Majid said. “From the birth of a child to family celebrations, anniversaries, sporting events, every part of society is linked to alcohol. It has woven itself into the fabric of everyday life.”

Bellshill demonstrates the complexities of welfare and health policies.

It lies at the fringes of the so-called Buckfast Triangle, a patch of post-industrial Scotland that accounts for 10 percent of all global sales of Buckfast, a fortified and caffeinated tonic wine with a sugary kick that makes it popular with violent, unruly teens and problem drinkers.

Made by Benedictine monks, Buckfast is about 15 percent alcohol — not much stronger than a Californian chardonnay — but contains three and a half times as much caffeine as Coke, earning it local nicknames such as "Commotion Lotion." Its glass bottles frequently double as a weapon.

Yet while Buckfast is cheap, at about $9.60 a bottle, it isn't cheap enough to qualify for Scotland’s new minimum pricing.

“If anything, people will probably end up buying more of it because the alternatives will go up in price,” Majid said.

'They just want oblivion'

Choosing a bottle of wine to have over dinner, or for unwinding after a tough day at work, is unlikely to change for most Scots; even the cheapest wine at Majid’s store already meets the new criteria so he won't be forced to raise his prices.

But cheap booze is the mainstay for hardcore drinkers.

“They just want oblivion, and they’ll do anything to get it,” said Claire Gallagher, manager of a rehab center that provides emergency shelter and detox for the homeless in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city.

Her unit, part of the Turning Point charity, sees the effect of cheap alcohol on those living on the streets.

Image: Homeless in Scotland
Homeless people sit under a bridge where they live on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland.Christopher Furlong / Getty Images file

“If they weren’t in here, they’d be in the hospital or the morgue,” she said.

However, she believes price controls will push drinkers onto other drugs, such as psychoactive substances.

“What is being forgotten is the reason why people buy cheap, strong drink,” she said. “For most people that we see, it is to mask some other problem. Doubling the price of their alcohol just means they’ll take something else.”

Among the temporary residents in her unit is Kevin Kerrigan, 49, who expects to move into a new home this month after five months of recovery from alcohol addiction.

“Speaking from my experience, if you want it you’ll get it," he said. "So I don’t think higher prices will mean much except less money in your pocket."

For Gallagher, the changes amount to a tax on the poorest in society.

“Alcohol policies rarely achieve what they’re supposed to,” she said. “We already have fines for street drinking and all that happens is that people end up in prison because they can’t pay it.

“Addicts with the hardest lives are being treated like villains, yet minimum pricing won’t stop the people who flop down in the evening thinking, ‘What a terrible day I’ve had’ and drink a whole bottle of wine.”