Buying drink at the supermarket could involve a walk of shame to an “alcohol-only” checkout counter under new plans to help Scotland curb its binge-drinking culture.
The scheme, announced yesterday by Nationalist ministers in Edinburgh, is designed to deter shoppers from making excessive purchases by placing them under the scrutiny of fellow customers. It is part of a package of radical measures aimed at tackling Scotland's alcohol problems, which is estimated to cost the country's economy more than £2 billion a year.
The alcohol-only checkouts would mean that families doing their weekly shop would be faced with queueing twice - using one checkout for their groceries and another for alcohol in the same way as cigarettes are sold separately in supermarkets at present.
The proposal was floated in a pre-legislative consultation document from the Scottish government that aims to put in place a plan to tackle the near-epidemic of alcohol abuse in the country.
The document states: “Similar arrangements [to the purchase of cigarettes] for alcohol sales could encourage shoppers to make conscious decisions about whether to purchase alcohol and help to emphasise that alcohol is not an ordinary product. In stores where alcohol is sold, a separate checkout, or checkouts, would be used for the sales of alcohol products. No other products could be processed through the alcohol checkout.”
The dedicated checkout idea was immediately branded absurd by critics. Fiona Moriarty of the Scottish Retail Consortium, representing supermarkets, said: “No one buys alcohol by accident. Those determined to drink excessively will not be put off by separate checkouts but they would inconvenience responsible customers, pile on thousands of pounds of refit and staffing costs and further demonise alcohol.”
“It is only a small minority of Scots who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Draconian legislation will not change that, but it will penalise the overwhelming majority of customers who consume alcohol perfectly responsibly.”
She's right, of course. I'd add that the proposal is, like all manifestations of the nanny state, incredibly patronising. The proposal's authors write that this will "encourage shoppers to make conscious decisions about whether to purchase alcohol". However, I would imagine that most shoppers, being slightly more than mindless automatons, are already fully capable of exercising rational choice in their shopping decisions. I'd also suggest that the moment at which one exercises that choice comes when one picks up the items one wishes to purchase and places them in one's shopping basket, rather than at the moment when, having done that, one walks to the special "naughty till".
The planned introduction of the "walk of shame" - which, let's face it, might be rather more shaming were it not something that most adults will be doing on a regular basis - is not the only bright idea contained in the proposals:
Scottish ministers also want to introduce a system of minimum pricing for drink - possibly about 35p per unit of alcohol, although a definite price has not been fixed - in an effort to ensure that the price better reflects the strength of alcoholic drinks.
Critics of that plan last night seized on the disclosure, from Scottish government officials, that it would mean the price of a bottle of supermarket-branded whisky produced in Scotland would rise by almost a quarter and would thus be more expensive than the same bottle sold in an English supermarket.
These "critics" may have spoken too soon, however, for the same idea is being considered south of the border:
Ministers at Westminster are considering plans similar to those already put forward in Scotland, to impose a minimum price for alcohol.
Any legislation could see English supermarkets and corner shops ordered to charge a minimum of between 35p and 40p per unit.
The move is aimed at curbing the binge-drinking culture among teenagers, who according to recent figures drink more than youngsters in most other developed countries.
How much does alcohol cost in those countries? British alcohol is certainly the most heavily taxed in Europe, if not actually the most expensive. As such, the government might like to consider that maybe, just maybe, the binge-drinking "epidemic" has not arisen in a vacuum, and will not be eliminated by measures like this. Perhaps if the government really worry that much about binge-drinking, they should start the process of stopping it by looking at its root causes.But what are those root causes? I would suggest that the increase in binge-drinking probably has a lot to do with general societal breakdown, the collapse in self-discipline among some people, and the decline of the family. The very problems, in fact, which people like the present British government worked so hard to bring about. So perhaps they might not be so keen to solve them. Instead, they apparently want to interfere in the workings of private companies, and to penalise the large number of drinkers who do not binge drink (or who, even if they do, do not actually break the law after doing so), but who may now have to pay considerably more for the alcohol that they do consume.
Personally, I'm not hugely concerned about binge drinking per se. I am concerned about crime, including alcohol-related crime, but I think that that should be dealt with by targeting the minority of people who commit it, rather than the large majority of harmless drinkers. I'm also concerned about societal breakdown, which is a cause of the apparent increase in binge drinking, but I can't imagine that the government will do anything to reverse that. Instead, they are giving me another cause for concern: the fact that our rulers - be they at Holyrood or at Westminster - seem determined again and again to interfere in our lives and dictate our behaviour.