Doctors yesterday hailed a court ruling in favour of minimum pricing for alcohol claiming Scotland’s health would dramatically improve as a result of the measure to reduce heavy drinking.
The Court of Session backed the Scottish Government’s controversial plans to impose a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, taking a bottle of spirits to at least £14.
Judges at Scotland’s highest civil court rejected a challenge to the legislation, which had been mounted by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
The decision was met with dismay by the SWA, which had argued the legislation breached trade law. The SWA had called for different approaches to be taken to tackling problem drinking including the raising of tax.
David Frost, SWA chief executive, said his organisation regretted the ruling. He added that the judgement would be studied and members consulted before considering whether to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.
Holyrood’s Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell welcomed the “landmark” verdict.
She said: “I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgement 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.”
Her delight was shared by medical organisations and campaigners against alcohol abuse.
Dr Miles Mack, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland, said: “The Court of Session’s ruling today will have a positive impact not only on thousands of patients across Scotland but on practically all Scottish communities as well.
“Just as patients must sometimes come to terms with their drinking habits, the drinks industry must today come to terms with the will of Scotland’s Parliament and courts. It will be seen in a stronger and more positive light if it does.”
He added: “If representatives of the drinks industry remain sceptical of the positive impact of this ruling, I and many of our College’s members will be pleased to welcome them into our surgeries to see for themselves the misery an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can cause.”
Minimum pricing legislation was passed at Holyrood back in 2012. It then faced an initial challenge from the SWA in the Scottish courts. The Court of Session dismissed the SWA’s case. The drinks industry body then took their case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) last year. The ECJ agreed the policy might breach EU rules on free trade, but said it should be for Scottish Courts to decide.
Yesterday the Court of Session took its decision after considering whether the infringement of European trade laws that minimum pricing would bring are justified by the benefits to public health - and if this could be achieved by any other means.
The judges agreed with the previous Court of Session ruling, which “correctly concluded that whatever arguments may be deployed against it, there was evidence which demonstrated that the alternative of increased tax, with or without a prohibition on below cost sales, would be less effective than minimum pricing”.
David Frost of the SWA 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.”