IT is “frustrating” the Scottish Government does not have full power to control alcohol advertising, a campaigning charity has said.

Laura Mahon, deputy chief executive at Alcohol Focus Scotland, said even if the Scottish Government was to take the most comprehensive approach to restricting marketing, it would admittedly still be limited in the number of channels it could reduce exposure through.

While the Scottish Government has the power to remove adverts in print media, outdoor spaces – such as billboards and bus stops – and sports and events sponsorship, it does not have power over broadcast advertising which is reserved to Westminster.

The charity added there is widespread confusion over which government has what control over digital marketing, which is one of the biggest concerns as adverts on social media are often specifically targeted at people showing an interest in drink.

Mahon said it was also clear the Scottish and UK governments were on different wavelengths, with the latter being “really far behind” when it comes to policies aimed at reducing alcohol harm and the former having made it a priority.

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She told The National’s Holyrood Weekly podcast: “We’ve got two governments that are in completely different places when it comes to strategies to reduce alcohol harm.

“The Scottish Government has made tackling alcohol harm one of its priorities and at Westminster things are really far behind where we are in Scotland. It is frustrating that we don’t have more of that power here I think, but the priority right now is persuading the Scottish Government to use the powers it has.”

The Scottish Government carried out a consultation on reducing alcohol advertising earlier this year but after a huge backlash from industry, First Minister Humza Yousaf said the Government would go “back to the drawing board” on the matter.

'Scottish Government can still make a difference'

Mahon added the Scottish Government could still make a huge difference by banning marketing in key areas it has control in.

“We think if they were to take action across the board in terms of the areas they have devolved responsibility for, what they would be doing is switching off lots of the contributing channels," said Mahon. 

“There’s some channels that would remain there that they don’t have power over, but even by switching off some of these other channels they would be tackling the wraparound effect of marketing we’re seeing at the moment.

The National: Laura Mahon, deputy chief executive at Alcohol Focus ScotlandLaura Mahon, deputy chief executive at Alcohol Focus Scotland (Image: Alcohol Focus)

“We’re now starting to lag behind other countries. Ireland has already taken bold measures to restrict marketing so we need to be catching up with them if we want to maintain our reputation as a leading country on this issue.”

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Alcohol Focus Scotland is advocating for a full ban on alcohol marketing and in particular brand marketing which can be used as a loophole when restrictions are brought in, i.e. advertising 0% products so a company's brand is still visible. 

Court case impact on MUP 

It comes after the Scottish Government announced plans to uprate minimum unit pricing (MUP) to 65p per unit earlier this week, with the current policy set to expire next year.

While relieved at the long-awaited move, Mahon said the long-term impacts of the policy – first approved in 2012 - being held up in the courts for six years are now being seen with inflation and the Covid pandemic having eroded the effect of the world-leading policy.

A legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association to the policy meant it was not brought in until 2018.

Mahon stressed that by the time MUP was implemented, it should have been set at around 58p per unit rather than 50p.

Research from experts at the University of Sheffield published this week showed high levels of inflation in recent years combined with heavier drinkers consuming even more during the pandemic had practically killed off the groundbreaking effect the policy was meant to have.

Mahon said the huge delay to implementation after MSPs agreed on 50p per unit in 2012 is not spoken about enough, particularly given alcohol-specific deaths have risen for three years in a row after initially falling in 2019 – a year after MUP came in.

She said: “I think this doesn’t get spoken about very much in the media, the long-term effect of that delay and that court case.

“The original plan had been the price would be reviewed after two years of implementation, but if you’re tied up in a legal battle for six years before you can even implement the policy, it can have that policy-chill effect of interference by unhealthy commodity industry.

“I would say there’s been a wider long-term effect of that intervention because the Government had to pour so much of their resources into that court case that efforts in other areas have been slower than they were intended to be.

“In terms of the planned price rise after two years, the other policy-chill effect is if you’re then anticipating further litigious action any time you try to make a change, you’re perhaps going to be less confident to go ahead.”

Alcohol-specific deaths hit their highest level – 1276 deaths – since 2008 last year which has led some leading industry figures to question the extent to which MUP has had any effect on Scotland’s problem with drink.

But despite the effects of MUP having been eroded, Mahon insisted that without it we would be in a much worse situation.

Researchers believe MUP is now equivalent to 41p after adjusting for the effects of inflation, with experts concluding consumption is 2.2% higher than it would have been if MUP had risen in line with inflation.

The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.