Supreme Court finally clears the way for minimum pricing

The UK Supreme Court has ‘unanimously’ dismissed the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) appeal against last year’s ruling by Scottish judges in favour of minimum pricing. The decision means the Scottish Government can now finally implement the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012. ‘The 2012 Act does not breach EU law,’ says the Supreme Court’s ruling. ‘Minimum pricing is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.’

The road to minimum pricing has been a long and complicated one. The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) Bill was passed 18 months after a previous bill had its provisions for minimum pricing removed (DDN, June 2012, page 4), only to face a legal challenge from the SWA and others on the grounds that the measure breached EU trade law. When this was finally rejected by the Scottish Court of Session (DDN, November 2016, page 4), the SWA lodged its latest appeal (DDN, December 2016, page 4).

The ruling makes it more likely that minimum pricing will also be implemented in Wales, following the recent introduction of the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill (DDN, November, page 4). David Cameron’s coalition government abandoned plans to introduce minimum pricing on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that it would reduce harm without penalising moderate drinkers (DDN, August 2013, page 4). However, a report earlier this year from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 stated that if minimum pricing is introduced in Scotland and proves ‘effective in cutting down excessive drinking’ then England and Wales should follow suit (DDN, April, page 5).

The Scottish Government called the Supreme Court’s ruling a ‘landmark moment’ and said that it will proceed with plans to introduce the measure ‘as quickly as possible’, with ministers carrying out a consultation on the proposed 50p per unit price.

‘In a ruling of global significance, the UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy,’ said health secretary Shona Robison. ‘Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high-strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families.’ The SWA said that it accepted the ruling and that it would ‘continue to work in partnership with the government and the voluntary sector to promote responsible drinking and to tackle alcohol-related harm’.

Alcohol Health Alliance chair Professor Sir Ian Gilmore said the decision represented ‘a great victory for the health of the public’, adding that the five years of legal challenges to the original legislation meant that ‘many families have needlessly suffered the pain and heartache of losing a loved one’. The spotlight should now fall on England, where ‘cheap alcohol is also causing considerable damage,’ he added.

‘Now is the time for Westminster to step up and save lives,’ echoed Alcohol Research UK CEO Dr Richard Piper, ‘As alcohol has become more affordable, the rates of alcohol-related ill-health have risen. The fact is, something has to be done. Minimum pricing is a much more targeted measure than tax, because it raises the prices only of the very cheapest and strongest drinks on the market – those that tend to be consumed by the heaviest drinkers.’

Meanwhile, plans for a drug consumption room in Glasgow have suffered a setback following the Scottish Lord Advocate’s failure to back a change of legislation to allow possession of heroin within the facility. ‘This is a hugely depressing decision,’ said Scottish Drugs Forum CEO David Liddell. ‘It means that a drug consumption room cannot be delivered in a timescale that will respond to the pressing needs of a group who are among the most vulnerable in our society.’

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