Lewis Hamilton joins drive against booze restrictions

FORMULA One champion Lewis Hamilton last night emerged as a powerful new weapon in the campaign against the Scottish Government's crackdown on alcohol.

In a move calculated to pile pressure on ministers, drinks firm Diageo has hired Hamilton to promote its message of encouraging responsible alcohol use rather than the "Draconian" and "blanket" approach of the Government. The driver, in an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday, said it was better to make people aware of the dangers of alcohol as "no one likes being told what to do".

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has declared war on Scotland's booze culture, proposing to raise the minimum age for buying drink in off-licences from 18 to 21, introduce alcohol-only checkouts in supermarkets, set minimum prices and end two-for-one deals.

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There are also plans to make pubs and clubs pay a 'social responsibility fee' for the policing of antisocial behaviour in hotspot areas. The SNP is expected shortly to unveil its final proposals for tackling problem drinking, which is estimated to cost Scotland 2.25bn a year.

But the drinks industry and supermarkets are vigorously opposed to many of the proposals. Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker and owner of brands such as Guinness and Smirnoff, last night revealed that 24-year-old Hamilton had joined its campaign.

The world champion said: "Making people aware of the dangers is obviously really important and will work better than telling them what to do, because no one likes being told what to do."

He added: "We're not telling people not to drink, just to make sure that they make the right decisions. There are some youngsters out there for whom I'm a sort of role model so hopefully they'll look at me and see what is good for me can be good for them.

"I'm in a position where I am able to get a positive message out and, hopefully, youngsters will listen to what I have to say because behaving responsibly with alcohol is a part of my life too."

Although Hamilton was careful not to directly criticise the Scottish Government, Rachael Robertson, head of government affairs at Diageo, pulled no punches. She said the firm was supportive of some of the SNP's ideas, but warned "Draconian proposals" would not work.

She said: "We need to change attitudes and using high-profile spokesmen like Lewis Hamilton helps us get the message across effectively.

"We're expecting some kind of announcement and we anticipate a blanket policy that would target the whole population rather than the minority that are misusing alcohol. Lewis is an example of how we can use the brand and its assets to target people.

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"Lewis Hamilton is a big role model. We can use the skills we employ to sell our product to push the message of responsible drinking, to change attitudes towards alcohol and its misuse."

She added: "MacAskill has openly stated that he just wants to reduce overall consumption, but that simplistic goal won't reduce alcohol- related harm.

MacAskill's refrain has been that 'doing nothing is not an option', which we'd agree with, but … the approach required is a long-term one that doesn't appeal to a minority government looking to win votes in the next election."

Two weeks after MacAskill announced his plans last June, Asda warned it could sabotage the crackdown by setting up distribution centres across the border and selling cut-price drink on the internet.

A 10,000-signature petition has been handed in to parliament, objecting to the ban on selling alcohol to under-21s and there is an online campaign to fight the proposals. Retailers are also preparing to take the Scottish Government to court over plans to introduce a minimum pricing policy.