PLANS to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol in Scotland have been postponed indefinitely by ministers as a result of a growing legal challenge to the controversial move.
The Scottish Government has confirmed it will not be introducing the new law until legal action brought against it by drinks producers has been settled.
The decision means that the proposal, which was due to come into force in the spring of next year, has now been put on hold, with no date now available on when it could come in. Similar legal action taken by tobacco firms against a ban on promotional displays of cigarettes is still ongoing, and has now held up new laws by nearly two years already.
Any chance of the new minimum pricing law applying to off-licences and supermarkets in Scotland before 2014 therefore looks highly unlikely, given the length of the likely legal battle.
The SNP’s flagship health policy was already hitting difficulties after the European Commission ruled last month that it was opposed to it on the grounds it broke free trade laws. SNP ministers have until the end of the year to try and make their case to EC chiefs and avoid a potentially-damaging legal battle at the European Court of Justice.
The fresh problems in enacting the move will be a major blow to Scottish Government ministers for whom the minimum pricing proposal has been one of their flagship domestic policies.
Former Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said the idea was required to help reduce Scotland’s battle with the drink and highlighted an academic study which estimated the plan would lead to a 5 per cent cut in drinking, with harmful drinkers’ intake cut the most. Other studies have found that alcohol intake remains higher in Scotland than in England, costing hundreds of millions of pounds in extra crime and NHS work.
Her successor, Alex Neil, has pledged to continue the legal fight to enact minimum pricing, warning that Scotland has a “nightmare” problem with excessive drinking which needs to be curbed.
If enacted, the new law would impose a 50p per unit minimum price on drink. This would mean, for example, that a four-pack of medium strength lager would have to be sold at a minimum of £3.52, while the cheapest bottle of wine would retail at £4.69.
However, the plans have long been opposed by wine and spirits manufacturers, who have warned that the plans represent a block to free trade and could prompt retaliatory trade barriers against Scotch whisky. The association has warned the final price for the industry could be a loss of £500m in exports.
Last month, the European Commission revealed it had raised its own objections on free trade grounds, alongside EU nations France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria.
The Scotch Whisky Association will now pursue a judicial review legislation in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, set to begin within the next few weeks. The trade association has been joined by other UK and European Union wine, beer and spirits organisations and companies.
If unsuccessful, the group are likely to take it to the appeal courts and to the supreme court if necessary, indicating the legal battle will go on for more than two years.