PLANS for a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland yesterday came before the highest court in matters of European Union law, in the latest stage of a lengthy legal battle over the controversial policy.
A hearing on the Scottish Government’s proposal for a minimum unit price of 50p took place at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
In Scotland we drink far more than we did a generation ago and alcohol consumption is almost a fifth higher than the rest of the UKShona Robison
Member states of the EU were given the opportunity to make representations to the court, with Ireland, Norway the UK and Sweden backing the policy.
The oral hearing will help the court produce a preliminary ruling on the policy, to be issued in full later this year.
However, no initial details of the ruling were made public last night.
The policy was passed by Holyrood in 2012. The SNP used its overall majority to secure support for the flagship policy, which it says is needed to curb alcohol abuse and improve the health of the nation.
However, the plan stalled after the Scotch Whisky Association and other European wine and spirits producers mounted a legal challenge, arguing that minimum pricing would breach European law.
The legal bid was initially rejected by judge Lord Doherty at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 2013.
Following an appeal hearing, the case was referred to the EU court for its opinion last year. The group that represents the UK’s medical profession last night said the ongoing legal battle was delaying a change in the law it claimed would deliver significant health benefits in
Dr Peter Bennie, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland, said: “Alcohol-related illness causes 20 deaths each week in Scotland and the total healthcare costs are in excess of £268 million.
“It is therefore hugely disappointing that three years since this legislation was passed, without opposition in the Scottish Parliament, it has been subject to legal challenges by the Scotch Whisky Association which have delayed implementation.”
A Scotch Whisky Association spokesman hit back, saying: “We welcomed today’s opportunity to put our case direct to the Court of Justice and to highlight that our view remains that minimum unit pricing will not effectively tackle alcohol misuse, whilst hitting the vast majority of responsible drinkers.”
Scottish Labour public health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson said minimum pricing would lead to higher costs for low-income people with drink problems rather than those with more affluent lifestyles.
Dr Simpson, a former GP, said: “We still don’t believe it will solve the problem, but it will most affect people with the lowest 30 per cent of income, in terms of taking more money from them.
“It would also be worth over £100 million a year to the supermarkets at the same time that the government has failed to act on having a social responsibility levy on the industry to tackle health inequalities related to alcohol abuse.”
Scotland’s health secretary Shona Robison restated the government’s position that the move was necessary to tackle Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
She said: “Introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol is the best, most targeted way to tackle the affordability of cheap, strong alcohol consumed by heavy drinkers, without penalising moderate drinkers.”