LOCAL underage drinking crackdowns have provided no evidence that a national under-21 alcohol ban in shops and off-licences will reduce youth disorder, according to the country's top public health statistician.
Professor Sheila Bird, vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, said it was "disappointing" that the Scottish Government's hugely controversial proposal had not been tested in properly controlled trials.
Three Scottish police forces have introduced off-sales bans for under-21s in Armadale, Stenhousemuir, Larbert and Cupar as part of a wider campaign to stamp out antisocial behaviour by drunk teenagers.
The results have been declared a spectacular success by ministers and government officials keen to introduce a national under-21 drinks ban.
On Monday, Shona Robison, the public health minister visited Stenhousemuir, seizing on police figures showing that in the first three months of the crackdown, from April to June, reports of antisocial behaviour fell 40 per cent, and breaches of the peace by almost as much.
Meanwhile, minor assaults were down 30 per cent and serious assaults down 60 per cent.
A Scottish Government press release issued the same day said similar schemes in Armadale and Cupar had also seen significant cuts in calls to police and antisocial offences.
Ms Robison said: "The dramatic results from Stop the Supply show what can be achieved when communities take bold steps to tackle alcohol misuse among young people."
The press release said the pilot scheme "revealed more evidence that an over-21s off-sales policy could help cut crime and antisocial behaviour if extended nationwide".
The press release failed to mention that in the four towns, police also brought in other measures to limit the supply of alcohol to young people.
They included using voluntary underage "buyers", marking bottles to identify shopkeepers selling alcohol to children, increasing the number of police patrols, and a "ring round" scheme to alert shops to youngsters trying to buy drink.
Prof Bird said the Scottish Government was guilty of spinning the figures, or simply being "naive".
She said the effect of the under-21 drinks ban on antisocial behaviour and crime could only be properly tested if it was introduced on its own in several areas. The results would then have to be compared with other areas without a ban, to make sure other variables – such as bad weather – were not causing any falls in offending.
She told The Scotsman: "It's disappointing that in such a potentially important intervention as this, there are more questions than answers.
"There have been big changes in some outcomes, but the studies do not allow you to attribute them specifically to the underage ban."
Prof Bird said it was "naughty" of the Scottish Government to highlight a "60 per cent" fall in serious assaults when the figures showed a drop from five incidents to two. "That is hugely statistically insignificant," she said. "The way the results are being reported, it may not even be spin, it may be naivety."
She added: "With something as important as this, you need a proper study."
Chief Inspector Bob Beaton, who led the alcohol crackdowns in Stenhousemuir and Larbert, said anecdotal evidence indicated that the campaigns had been effective in reducing youth disorder.
But he acknowledged: "It's difficult to separate the different strands to say which have been most successful.
"It does appear this is working, but there have been a number of initiatives and the under-21 alcohol ban is just one."
The ban on selling alcohol to under-21s has attracted widespread political opposition, while more than 10,000 people have signed a petition against the move.
The Scottish Government will reveal its final plan in a bill expected to be published early next year.
The minister for public health, Ms Robison, said: "Alcohol misuse is costing Scotland £2.25 billion a year across the NHS, police, social services and the wider economy, so doing nothing – or simply doing more of the same – is not an option.
"What has been noticeable in the debate around our proposals for tackling alcohol misuse is the lack of constructive alternatives from our critics."
Producers blast government plan to make drink 'a social taboo'
DRINKS industry chiefs yesterday hit out at plans to "demonise" alcohol as part of a Scottish Government drive to tackle binge drinking.
They claimed Scots drank less than people in other parts of the UK and said moves to restrict availability would be unfair and ineffective.
"Problems of alcohol misuse in Scotland will not be solved by turning alcohol into a social taboo and demonising drink," said David Poley, chief executive of drinks industry body the Portman Group.
"There is a considerable risk that this would actually increase the appeal of alcohol to young people in particular."
The Portman Group yesterday issued its response to the consultation process.
Mr Poley added: "The myth is that levels of drinking and alcohol misuse are worse in Scotland than elsewhere.
"In reality, Scots drink less than people in the rest of Britain and are no more likely to be drinking harmfully.
"Setting a minimum price for alcohol would penalise hard-working Scots."
The Portman Group's member bodies are Bacardi-Martini, Beverage Brands, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg UK, Coors Brewers, Diageo, Inbev UK, Pernod Ricard UK and Scottish & Newcastle.
Together, they manufacture more than 60 per cent of the alcohol sold in the UK.
The group claims current laws should be more robustly applied and called for a programme of enforcement.
Mr Poley points to the success of drink-drive campaigns in changing the culture, adding: "Education can have a similar impact on our harmful drinking culture, provided it is combined with proper enforcement of the law."
A Scottish Government spokesman said its proposals were about tackling alcohol misuse, not "demonising alcohol", and said Scotland's alcohol consumption had "risen dramatically" in the past decade.
Published Date: 12 September 2008
By Michael Howie
Home Affairs Correspondent