THE Scottish Government has won a landmark legal battle to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.
But the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is to appeal after the Court of Session yesterday rejected its claim that Holyrood has overstepped its powers and that the move breached trade EU laws.
Minimum pricing is at the heart of the SNP’s plans to tackle Scotland’s “unhealthy” relationship with alcohol. New laws to introduce the measure were passed last year, but met with an immediate court challenge by the SWA and European drinks firms.
The ruling yesterday found the proposals are not contrary to EU law and could be justified on health grounds. A summary of the decision by Lord Doherty said: “The court ruled that the Acts of Union were not an impediment to the minimum pricing measures.
“The court also decided that the measures were not incompatible with EU law.”
It added: “In so far as the measures had equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions on imports, they were justified on the grounds of the protection of life and the health of humans.”
The court also found that there was no need to refer to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on EU law.
Health secretary Alex Neil welcomed the ruling. He said: “We have always believed that minimum unit pricing is the right thing to do to tackle Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol. Minimum unit pricing will target cheap alcohol relative to strength that is favoured by hazardous and harmful drinkers and which contributes to much of the alcohol-related harm we see.”
A minimum price of 50p per unit has been earmarked by the government. Under the plans, the cost of a 70cl bottle of vodka would rise to more than £13, while four cans of 9 per cent strength lager would increase to at least £7.92.
The SNP government has claimed that the country’s alcohol problems cost £3.56 billion each year – or £900 for every adult. It has been estimated that minimum pricing could save up to 300 lives a year within a decade of its introduction.
But SWA chief executive Gavin Hewitt said the body will fight on: “We will be appealing against this decision and we remain confident of our position. The view from Europe is very different to that expressed by the court and we are not alone in having concerns about the legality of MUP [minimum unit pricing].”
The appeal means that the introduction of minimum pricing is still on hold. If it also fails, the SWA could take their case all the way to the
European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The EC has already indicated it believes the measure is not compatible with EU law.
Campaign charity Alcohol Focus Scotland called on the drinks firms to drop their opposition to the measure. Chief executive Dr Evelyn Gillan said: “The Court of Session has issued a clear, and unambiguous judgment, and finds no grounds for the drinks industry’s action against the Scottish Government. In light of this, we call on the Scotch Whisky Association to drop any further legal action.
“We know from the evidence in Canada that minimum pricing saves lives. With 24 people dying every week in Scotland because of alcohol, there is no reason to delay this measure.”
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) also welcomed the decision of the Court of Session.
Dr Neil Dewhurst, president of the RCP in Edinburgh, said: “In practical terms, we believe this means that public health in Scotland is more important than commercial interests. Doctors throughout the country will applaud this decision and the leadership of the Scottish Government.”