Court backs Scottish Government plan for minimum pricing

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 21 October 2016 in News

The Scotch Whisky Association's bid to halt the Scottish Government's plan for a minimum price on alcohol has been dealt a blow by a new court ruling.

Photo credit - PA

The Scottish Government's long-delayed proposal to introduce a minimum price on alcohol has been given a new lease of life after judges ruled that it is justified to protect public health.

The Court of Session has ruled for the second time that the The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act is lawful.

It follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which found that the measure violated the European Union's single market rules.

The ECJ, the EU's top court, said the objective of reducing alcohol intake would be better achieved by taxation - but Holyrood does not have the power over UK excise duties.

The Scottish Government introduced the Act in 2012 to tackle what it said was "Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol" and the toll it was taking, especially among the young.

The Scotch Whisky Association, The European Spirits Organisation (CEPS) and Comité Vins (CEEV) called for a judicial review on the grounds that the Act is incompatible with European Union law protecting the free movement of goods.  

The Scottish Government accepts that the law will restrict trade, but maintains that it is justified to protect health.

In the latest Court of Session ruling, Scotland's top judge Lord Carloway said: "The petitioners maintain that there is no evidence to support the idea that a general reduction in the population’s consumption would have any significant health benefit.  

"That is a statement which would surprise many...it effectively contradicts the WHO statement that increasing the price of alcohol is one of the most effective ways of reducing its harmful use.

He added: "The issue then returns to whether raising the level of tax on alcohol would achieve the same or similar objective with a less restrictive effect.  

"Here, of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the Scottish Government has no power to raise taxation on alcohol.  That is a matter reserved to the United Kingdom Government.  

He continued: "It does produce a curious anomaly in the context of a legal argument that increasing tax is a viable alternative, when the political reality is that it is clearly not."

Lord Carloway said it is "reasonable to conclude that alternative measures including increases in taxation, are not capable of protecting life and health as effectively as minimum pricing, while being less restrictive of trade".

Aileen Campbell, Minister for Public Health and Sport, said: “I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgment in our favour from 2013. 

"This follows the opinion of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that it was for our domestic courts to make a final judgment on the scheme.

“The Scotch Whisky Association represents some of Scotland’s finest whisky brands, and while they were entitled to raise this action, they and the wider drinks industry must now respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament and the ruling of the Court of Session and enable this life-saving measure to be introduced.

“This policy was passed by the Scottish Parliament unopposed more than four years ago.

“In that time, the democratic will of our national parliament has been thwarted by this ongoing legal challenge, while many people in Scotland have continued to die from the effects of alcohol misuse.

“Today’s ruling is a landmark one, and should mark the end of the legal process, allowing this important policy to finally be brought forward.”

David Frost, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: "We regret the Court of Session's ruling in favour of the Scottish Government on minimum unit pricing (MUP). We continue to believe that MUP is a restriction on trade and that there are more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse. 

"However, we of course remain committed to working with all partners to address this problem so that the long-term trend of declining alcohol-related harm in Scotland continues. 

“We will study the details of the judgement and consult our members before deciding on next steps, including any possible appeal to the UK Supreme Court.”

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "This is a great day for Scotland’s health. Minimum pricing is widely supported by doctors, social workers, children’s charities and many more who want to get rid of the cheap vodkas and super-strength ciders that cause so much damage.

Scotland has been waiting more than four years to implement this policy which will prevent thousands of hospital admissions and crimes, and save hundreds of lives. We hope that minimum pricing will now be put in place as quickly as possible so we can start seeing the benefits."

Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: "Let's hope the Scotch Whisky Association gets the message and allows the Scottish Government to get on and implement this urgent public health priority."

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