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Verdict supports Holyrood

Court backs government on raising price of alcohol

beerThe Scottish government was given the backing of a court today to raise the price of alcohol.

The Court of Session ruled in favour of a law on minimum unit pricing which was introduced four years ago to combat problem drinking.

The Court of Session gave its verdict on a challenge by the drinks industry under European trade law.

Scottish Health Minister Aileen Campbell described the ruling as a “landmark” and said it should “mark the end of the legal process, allowing this important policy to finally be brought forward.”

She called on the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others in the drinks industry who led the legal challenge to respect the will of the parliament and the highest court in the land.

But David Frost, chief executive of the SWA, expressed dismay over the court’s decision and said it would be considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

“We regret the Court of Session’s ruling in favour of the Scottish Government on minimum unit pricing,” he said.

“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.

David Frost with John Swinney
David Frost with John Swinney (photo by Terry Murden)

“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.”

The Government’s legislation will see a bottle of spirits rising to £14 and some cider doubling in price. The cheapest bottle of wine will cost £4.69 and a four-pack of 500ml cans of 4% lager at least £4.

In its ruling, the Court of Session said: “The advantage of the proposed minimum pricing system, so far as protecting health and life was concerned, was that it was linked to the strength of the alcohol.

“Current EU tax arrangements related to different types of product (wine, spirits, beer and cider etc) each of which had a range of alcohol strength….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.”

The chairman of BMA Scotland, Dr Peter Bennie, said a minimum price was the action needed to improve Scotland’s “damaging relationship with alcohol”.

He added: “Every year that has been lost to the alcohol industry’s delaying tactics has brought with it a human cost in lives lost and health damaged.

“The alcohol industry needs to accept today’s judgement and stop attempting to put their own agenda ahead of the public interest.”

The Scottish Government called on the Scotch Whisky Association and others in the drinks industry who have been behind the legal challenge “to respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament – and to respect the judgement of the highest court in Scotland”.

Ms Campbell, Minister for Public Health and Sport, said: “I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgment 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.

“Today’s ruling is a landmark one, and should mark the end of the legal process, allowing this important policy to finally be brought forward.”

Ms Campbell added: “Minimum unit pricing is the most proportionate and effective way to reduce the harm caused by cheap, high strength alcohol.

“We have always been convinced that this policy will save the lives of many of the people who die each year from alcohol. Recently we have seen the publication of yet more statistics which show that alcohol related deaths remain unacceptably high.

“I’m proud that Scotland has led the way on this public health measure, which other countries are also interested in pursuing, and who will also be welcoming today’s court ruling.

“Minimum unit pricing was passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament, and has the strong backing of those who work daily with people affected by alcohol.

“That is the backdrop against which we have so staunchly defended this policy throughout this legal challenge.

“Minimum unit pricing is only one of the measures we are implementing to reduce alcohol-related harm. We have a well-regarded alcohol strategy and as part of this we will be introducing a refreshed Alcohol Framework in the near future.”

Last December the European Court of Justice said the legislation was contrary to EU law if other tax options exist and recommended the introduction of alternative tax measures.

After that ruling Mr Frost said it had settled the issue “once and for all” adding that the court had agreed it was a restriction on trade.

However, the decision had to be referred back to the Court of Session and its ruling today now puts the Government’s plans firmly on track to be introduced next year.

Related article:

> Daily Business Comment: Why Holyrood needs to drop its pricing plan



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