The Scottish Government’s plans to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol products has been dealt a blow after the top lawyer in the European Court said the move risked infringing the EU law on free trade.
Giving a formal opinion the SNP proposal, the advocate general to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Yves Bot, said fixing a legal price for all alcoholic drinks would only be permitted on the grounds of protecting public health, if no other mechanism could be found – such as tax increases.
Bot said: “I feel that, 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.”
Experts now say it is highly likely that following Bot’s intervention the EJC will uphold complaints submitted against minimum pricing, including those from the Scotch Whisky Association, which has been a vocal critic of the move.
The Scottish Government remained bullish, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying on Twitter that her reading of Bot’s statement did not indicate infringement. She said: “not on my reading. Says that MUP isn’t per se precluded by EU law, but sets out tests that national court has to apply.”
Nevertheless the ECJ said Bot was “of the opinion that such a system risks infringing the principle of the free movement of goods and would only be legal if it could be shown that no other mechanism was capable of achieving the desired result of protecting public health.”
It added: “In particular, the advocate general suggests that increasing taxation of alcohol could be an alternative and it would be for the Scottish government to prove that this was not a suitable means of curbing excessive consumption of alcohol.”
The Scottish Government continues to enjoy support for the proposal across the health lobby, and a number of manufacturers, including Tennent Caledonian Breweries. Alastair Campbell Managing Director Tennent Caledonian Breweries said that minimum pricing remained 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,” he said. “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.”
He encouraged the Scottish Government to continue to show leadership, adding: “We pledge to support their aims and work with them on a wider strategy.”