Sturgeon firm on minimum alcohol pricing despite ECJ setback
Scottish government’s flagship policy risks infringing EU free trade rules
by: Mure Dickie in Edinburgh
October 7, 2015
The Scottish government is “absolutely committed” to pursuing a minimum price for alcohol despite an opinion from the European Court of Justice’s advocate general that the flagship policy risks infringing EU free trade rules.
Implementation of the plan to impose a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol is on hold as a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association continues, but Nicola Sturgeon, first minister, said she would “continue to make the case against the sale of deadly cheap alcohol”.
Ms Sturgeon told a conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday: “Minimum pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.”
Yves Bot, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice, said last month that imposing a minimum price could only be legal if the Scottish government could show no other approach would be as effective to achieve its public health goals.
“Having regard to the principle of proportionality, it is difficult to justify the rules at issue, which appear to me to be less consistent and effective than an ‘increased taxation’ measure and may even be perceived as being discriminatory,” Mr Bot wrote.
The advocate general’s opinion is not binding, but is in most cases followed by the Court of Justice. Lawyers said that if the court accepts Mr Bot’s argument in this case, it would set a high legal hurdle to minimum prices.
However, the Scottish government has stressed instead Mr Bot’s acceptance that minimum pricing is not absolutely precluded by EU law, noting that it is likely to be domestic Scottish courts that make the final decision on whether it is allowable in this case.
The Scottish parliament approved the minimum price on alcohol in May 2012 with a majority of 86 votes to one. However, the Scotch Whisky Association and other trade lobby groups argue that the measure would have no effect on problem drinking and would encourage trade discrimination.
Setting a Scottish minimum price would set a precedent for other “equally ineffective and illegal measures” in other countries, which would damage exports and the Scottish economy, the SWA says.
The Scottish government cited what it said was empirical evidence from Canada that showed a 10 per cent increase in the lowest price led to a 32 per cent fall in wholly alcohol-attributable deaths.
Scots drank almost a fifth more alcohol than people in England and Wales, while alcohol misuse was costing Scotland £3.6bn a year, it said.