Scotland moves closer to introducing world-first ‘minimum price’ law for alcohol to address health concerns
There were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016 in Scotland, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year in a nation of 5.3 million people
Britain’s top court on Wednesday supported the Scottish government’s innovative plan to stop people “drinking themselves to death” by imposing a minimum price on alcohol.
Scottish lawmakers want to set a price of at least 50 pence (65 US cents) per 10ml of pure alcohol in a drink, a volume known as a “unit” in Britain, the first time such a policy has been tried anywhere in the world.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) – backed by spiritsEUROPE and wine industry representatives CEEV – asked the Supreme Court in London to strike down the Scottish government’s plan. But seven Supreme Court justices in London dismissed the SWA’s contention, ruling unanimously that such pricing is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” and does not breach EU law.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who devised the plan in 2009 when she was health minister, said she was “absolutely delighted”.
“This has been a long road, and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics, but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health,” she said.
The ruling brings to an end a five year legal battle which went all the way to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2015. Judges there ruled that minimum unit pricing would breach EU trading rules if alternative tax measures could be introduced.
Scotland’s highest court, the Court of Session, took further evidence in light of the ECJ ruling and upheld its earlier decision that the policy was lawful, but it granted the SWA permission to take its fight to the UK Supreme Court where it was finally dismissed on Wednesday.
Scotland’s semi-autonomous government cannot vary tax on alcohol, as this power is held by the British government in London, but it can regulate the retail sector north of the border.
Scotland already has some of the toughest alcohol laws in Britain, including a ban on multibuy deals such as buy-one-get-one-free in supermarkets and “happy hours” in pubs.
In 2014 it introduced the lowest drink driving limit in Britain, slashing the previous limit by over a third.
There were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016 in Scotland, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year in a nation of 5.3 million people.
Sheffield University has suggested the policy could lead to 121 fewer deaths and 2,000 fewer hospital admissions a year.
A 50 pence minimum price would mean a 70cl bottle of whisky will cost at least £14 (US$18.4) and a 75cl bottle of 12.5 per cent wine could be sold for no less than £4.69.
Some form of minimum pricing is in place in six countries – Canada, certain states of the USA, Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – but this is understood to be the first time a government has set a floor price per unit.
It would not directly impact on Scotland’s premium whisky, which is already sold at well above the minimum price, but the SWA fear it could lead to international trade barriers.
Karen Betts, Scotch Whisky Association chief executive, said: “We will now look to the Scottish and UK governments to support the industry against the negative effects of trade barriers being raised in overseas markets that discriminate against Scotch whisky as a consequence of minimum pricing.”
Ignacio Sanchez Recarte, secretary general of CEEV, said they were “disappointed” by the ruling and said other EU member states should not consider adopting Scotland’s “experimental” policy until its impact becomes clear.
Joep Stassen, president of spiritsEUROPE, said: “This decision sets an unwelcome precedent for fair competition between alcohol drink producers.”