Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Wednesday, 5 May 2010 14:27 UK

Nicola Sturgeon rejects minimum alcohol price call

From Democracy Live: Nicola Sturgeon gives evidence on alcohol minimum pricing to the Health Committee

The health secretary has again rejected calls to reveal the level of the minimum alcohol price which the Scottish government hopes to set.

Nicola Sturgeon told a committee of MSPs that work in coming to the decision was "well under way".

But she said the government must examine all of the evidence before coming to a final decision.

Ms Sturgeon was appearing before the Scottish Parliament's health and sport committee.

The committee is examining the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill, which contains proposals for setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol in a bid to tackle high levels of alcohol abuse in the country.

The difference between this bill and every other bill is that it is not the principle that will be challenged, it is the level
Dr Richard Simpson MSP

The Scottish government has yet to say what it believes that price should be.

Lib Dem Ross Finnie MSP said it was "almost impossible" for the committee to consider whether the policy was likely to benefit public health without knowing what minimum price was being proposed.

Mr Finnie said: "All of the public health officials who came before us not only spoke in terms of the instrument itself, but they spoke at levels at which they believed it [minimum pricing] would have a big impact - I think they described it as a material effect on public health.

"That I think is the difficulty we have been placed into".

But Ms Sturgeon responded: "If we are to, as we have an obligation to and as we fully intend to do, set the price at a level that will pass the legal test it requires to pass, then we must make sure that we have taken account of all of the evidence.

"That does take some time, but that work is well under way. It is our intention, once that work is completed, to say what the government's proposal for the particular price is before the parliament is asked to come to a final vote on the minimum pricing proposals in this bill."

Tory MSP Mary Scanlon said recent findings by Sheffield University on the impact of setting a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol were "considerably weaker" than the university's previous studies.

'Substantial impact'

She put it to Ms Sturgeon: "Given that the projected effect of a minimum price is weaker and lesser than it was previously, do you accept that you would now, in order to gain EU compliance in terms of health harms, need a higher minimum price that has previously been projected?"

Ms Sturgeon replied that the 40p figure had been used "illustratively" and should not be taken as the figure the government will eventually settle on.

And she said even the revised Sheffield model showed a "substantial impact" on health.

She also criticised supermarket promotions selling extremely cheap alcohol ahead of the World Cup as "indefensible".

Ms Sturgeon added: "I do think retailers of alcohol have to recognise it's not an ordinary product and promotions like that are harming peoples' health.

"I think the best way to tackle these kind of promotions is a minimum price, coupled with a ban on quantity discounts and promotions."

Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson warned that the bill ran the risk of being repeatedly challenged in the courts.

Dr Simpson added: "The difference between this bill and every other bill is that it is not the principle that will be challenged, it is the level.

"As you increase the level of the minimum unit price, the degree of intrusion into the market and the comparison with other mechanisms will in fact get stronger and stronger."

The minimum pricing policy has wide support from the health profession, but Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats oppose the measure, meaning the bill is unlikely to secure parliamentary support.

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