The Scottish Government’s plans to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol could potentially breach EU free trade laws, according to an initial ruling by European Court of Justice advocate general Yves Bot. While the move would not be precluded by EU legislation, it would be legal only if it could be proven that it was the most effective public health measure available, he stated. The decision has been seen as a significant setback to the government’s plans.
In the case of The Scotch Whisky Association and others versus the advocate general for Scotland, Mr Bot ruled that ‘in order to pursue the objective of combating alcohol abuse, which forms part of the objective of protecting public health, a member state can choose rules imposing a minimum retail price of alcoholic beverages – which restricts trade within the European Union and distorts competition – rather than increased taxation of those products, only on condition that it shows that the measure chosen presents additional advantages or fewer disadvantages by comparison with the alternative measure.’
Increasing taxation would be ‘capable of procuring additional advantages by contributing to the general objective of combating alcohol abuse’, he stated.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, however, has stressed that the legal process is still ongoing and that a final response from the European Court of Justice is needed before the case can return to the Scottish courts. ‘This initial opinion indicates that it will be for the domestic courts to take a final decision,’ she said.
‘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 to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities,’ she continued. ‘In recent weeks statistics have shown that alcohol related deaths are rising again and that consumption may be rising again after a period of decline. We believe minimum unit pricing would save hundreds of lives in coming years and we will continue to vigorously make the case for this policy.’
Opinion of advocate general at http://curia.europa.eu