The Scottish government’s proposal for minimum unit pricing (MUP) on alcohol is a contravention of EU free-trade laws, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.
The issue now returns to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which had requested the ruling from the ECJ.
“The Court of Justice considers that the effect of the Scottish legislation is significantly to restrict the market, and this might be avoided by the introduction of a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol instead of a measure imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol,” said the ECJ.
The ruling laid out that MUP could only be justified on health grounds under EU law if it proved more proportionate and effective than general taxation.
“Although the imposition of a minimum price per unit intended to increase the price of cheap alcohol is an appropriate means of reducing the consumption of alcohol, a practice such as that adopted in Scotland is not justified where it is possible for health to be protected equally effectively by less restrictive tax measures,” the ECJ added.
Retailers could still set their own prices and be in competition using taxation, but the proposed 50p MUP on alcoholic drinks would be a restriction on free trade.
Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison was cautiously optimistic in the face of the ruling: “While we must await the final outcome of this legal process, the Scottish government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland.”
“We believe it is the most effective mechanism for tackling alcohol misuse and reducing the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities. We maintain that minimum unit pricing would target heavy drinkers as they tend to drink the cheap, high-strength alcohol that will be most affected by the policy.”
The Scotch Whisky Association, which has spearheaded the legal challenge against minimum pricing since the Scottish parliament voted in favour of the measure, welcomed the news.
Chief Executive David Frost said: “This settles EU law issues once and for all. The court has confirmed that minimum unit pricing is a restriction on trade, and that it is illegal to choose MUP where there are less restrictive ways of achieving the same end.”
However Paul Bartlett, Head of Corporate Relations for C&C Group, saw the decision as useful step on the road to introducing MUP.
“As the brewer of Tennent’s Lager and a range of other quality brands, we are part of the fabric of Scotland’s community and we support the responsible consumption of alcohol. Implementing minimum unit pricing in Scotland will help tackle the problems of alcohol misuse,” he said.
“Although the majority of people enjoy alcohol responsibly, we are concerned about the availability of strong, cheap alcohol and its impact on a minority of people and their communities. There is no doubt that cheap alcohol is a driver of consumption for some people. Evidence has shown that introducing minimum unit pricing will reduce the harm caused by alcohol.”