THE Scottish Government’s plans for a minimum alcohol price have been dealt a major blow after a European Court chief found they could infringe EU trade law.
Scottish ministers must show that no other measures could be taken to achieve the goal of improving public health, the Advocate General of the European Court’s Advocate General.
It indicates it will be for domestic courts to take final decisionNicola Sturgeon
The Scotch Whisky Association which brought the legal challenge said the opinion “encourages” its view that the measure is illegal
But Nicola Sturgeon insisted that the opinion did not rule out the possibility of minimum pricing being introduced.
The issue has been parked in the courts for years after a legal challenge against the measures was brought by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
The plans for a minimum alcohol price were first passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012.
Scotland’s Court of Session has already ruled that the plans were legal, but the whisky association appealed against this.
The issue will go back to the European Court of Justice for a ruling, before being referred back to the Court of Session in Scotland who will judge on the issue.
But the SNP Government says radical action is needed to tackle Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
Ministers say alcohol related deaths would fall by about 60 in the first year and 318 by year ten of the policy, according to modelling. There would also be a fall in hospital admission of 1,600 in year 1, and 6,500 per year by year ten of the policy.
Ms Sturgeon said “We welcome this opinion, in which the Advocate General confirms that minimum unit pricing is not precluded by EU law, but sets out tests that the national court has to apply.
“Importantly, this initial opinion indicates it will be for the domestic courts to take a final decision on minimum unit pricing. The Advocate General finds that the policy can be implemented if it is shown to be the most effective public health measure available.
“As such, the legal process is ongoing and we await a final response from the European Court of Justice, before the case returns to the Scottish courts.
“While we must await the final outcome of this legal process, the Scottish Government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.”
The SWA says there is no evidence that MUP is effective in reducing alcohol-related harm. They say much of the drink bought by hazardous drinkers will not be affected by the price change.
David Frost, Scotch Whisky Association chief executive, said: “We welcome the Advocate General’s opinion on minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol. The opinion encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal when there are less trade restrictive measures available.
“We await the Court of Justice’s final ruling.
“It remains important to address alcohol misuse with a range of other measures of proven effectiveness. We will continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on this. There is a long-term trend of falling alcohol-related deaths and harms in Scotland which suggests that measures in place are working.”