Minimum unit pricing could infringe on EU rules, says European court

03 September 2015

The European Court of Justice advocate general released an official opinion today that Scottish plans to implement minimum unit pricing for alcohol may be in breach of EU rules.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) joined with spiritsEurope and Comité Vins (CEEV) to take legal action in 2012 against minimum unit pricing, with the case being referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) by the Scottish Court in 2014. The SWA's argument was that the measures would 'not reduce the number of people drinking at hazardous and harmful levels', and that alcohol sales in Scotland have been falling since 2009. In addition, it said that minimum pricing was first ruled illegal by the CJEU over 30 years ago, and that if these measures went ahead, it would set a precedent 'for equally ineffective and illegal measures'.

The CJEU's opinion concluded, in part, that a national court would need 'to take into account the extent to which that measure impedes the free movement of goods when it is compared with alternative measures that would enable the same objective to be attained'.

SWA chief executive David Frost said: 'We welcome the advocate general’s opinion on minimum unit pricing 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.'

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers also supported initiatives other than MUP. 'If local and national authorities are committed to tackling any perceived health harms due to alcohol, then a better course of action would be to focus on controlling unrestricted off-trade promotions,' said chief executive Kate Nicholls. 'With over 70% of alcohol consumed away from licensed premises, we want to remind the Government that we firmly believe the best place for people to enjoy alcohol is in the safe, supervised environment of a pub and we will continue to promote the positive work of a responsible sector.'

Others remained in favour of the Scottish Government's proposals to implement MUP. Tennent Caledonian has supported the measures since 2011. MD Alastair Campbell commented: 'Minimum pricing is an important step in addressing the very specific but damaging problem of strong, cheap alcohol. It would be a lost opportunity for Scotland if it were not introduced.

'Although the majority of people enjoy alcohol responsibly, the availability of strong, cheap alcohol and its impact on a minority of people and their communities is concerning. We believe that there is no doubt and plenty of evidence to show that cheap alcohol is a driver of consumption for some people. Minimum unit pricing would be a brave but very useful step in tackling this misuse of alcohol.'

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