Alcohol abuse is not a time bomb. It's been happening for 30 years and it'll take more than tinkering with licensing to rectify the problem

The media relishes nothing more than discovering a "time bomb". Once upon a time it was population growth in developing countries, then it was obesity, then climate change and now it's drinking more than nine glasses of wine a week (fewer if you're female). The metaphor is a nonsense in so far as it implies a sudden shock. One thing these so-called time bombs have in common is that they have arisen gradually , their effects are cumulative and should come as no surprise to anyone.

In most societies there have always been some people who eat and drink more than their bodies can stand. The problem the UK has - along with other EU nations - is that over the past 30 years their numbers have grown. The Scots seem to have a stronger attachment to junk food and booze than most. Scotland ranks second only to the US in the obesity league table, while its addiction to booze rivals the Scandinavians. The debate about causes and remedies, however, has a venerable history. In the 19th century, the prevalence of alcohol abuse in most towns and cities across the UK resolved itself into a contest between fanatics, who blamed the brewers and publicans, and moderates who emphasised the environmental and social causes of drunkenness. The moderates won, but not before the extremists had helped shape a framework of licensing, which virtually eliminated competition from the marketplace.

The contemporary heir to the fanatical tendency is Kenny MacAskill, Scottish cabinet secretary for justice. Like many of his predecessors, he presents himself as a sinner come to salvation. For him, binge drinking is the product of too much temptation - ie price competition, so he is on a mission to reduce it. That means an enforced restriction on space allocated to alcohol as a condition of licences, an unintended consequence of which will be the elimination of low-volume specialist lines and further commoditisation of drinks.

As in the past, this approach is one-dimensional. Leaving aside the legal issues surrounding restrictions on competition, tinkering with licensing laws won't even scratch the surface of Scotland's real problems. These are the relationship between excessive drinking, obesity, smoking, drug-taking, unemployment and violent crime.

It's no accident these behaviours are prevalent in Scotland's low-income urban areas, which are some of the most deprived in the EU. Get your mind round that, Kenny.n

Kevin Hawkins, director general, British Retail Consortium