Scottish Independence, minimum alcohol pricing and the challenge of national self-determination in a globalized world?

I was speaking at the European Public Health Alliance Annual Conference in Brussels last week and was lucky enough to be able to attend a fringe meeting on the introduction of minimum alcohol policy in Scotland. Making links to the upcoming vote on Scottish independence and the common desire for communities to set their own public health agendas, here is my blog on the subject.

The fever surrounding the upcoming Scottish independence vote will draw to a conclusion shortly with electors finally able to make their choice. The vote raises issues relating to identity, nationalism and self-determination that go well beyond the vital yet singular question of how the nations of Britain should be governed. But what I wanted to do in this Blog is to draw comparisons between the independence vote and the current attempt by the Scottish Government’s to introduce minimum alcohol pricing. The parallels are I believe quite striking.

In terms of evidence-based policymaking, the arguments of the minimum alcohol-pricing lobby appear to be highly credible. Standing in contrast to simplistic caricatures of hard drinking Scots, the evidence presented is in fact of a recent and rapid growth in problem drinking fuelled by all too easily available low cost drinks, with supermarkets deemed to be particularly culpable. The impact on liver disease alone would enough to warrant government intervention, without additional consideration of the many other often tragic social consequences of this particular epidemic. The proposed introduction of a 50p (62 cent) minimum pricing also appears to be both targeted and proportionate, which makes the opposition the initiative is currently facing in the courts all the more worrying, not least from a public health perspective.

Linking this to Scottish independence proves to be of additional interest, in that it is not the United Kingdom government in London that is challenging Scots in the courts. Quite the opposite as the UK government continues to express their full support for the proposal. No, it is the somewhat unlikely coalition of the European Commission, the Scottish drinks industry, added and abetted by some notable global food giants and a group of Member States who perceive their wine producers to be under threat, which led to a referral to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ECJ itself is due to rule on the matter before the end of the year and one cannot over estimate the impact their judgment will have on the nascent field of international public health jurisprudence. Watching with interest from the sidelines as respective global standard bearers for free trade and public health will be will be the WTO and the WHO. Consequently, as the vote on Scottish independence will undoubtedly have repercussions far beyond the British Isles, so too will the judgment regarding the legality of the minimum alcohol pricing have global resonance in the contest to establish the parameters of legitimate health policy space for the 21st century. Equally if the Scots do vote for independence, they may well find that their journey to shape a distinctive vision of health and social care for the people of Scotland is only just beginning.

If you are interested in learning more about the issue of minimum alcohol pricing I would suggest you have a look at the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems website at

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