Drinks industry bosses have pledged to take their fight to stop the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after their legal challenge was dismissed by a court.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) have rejected pleas by MSPs, alcohol awareness charities and doctors to end their legal challenge to minimum unit pricing (MUP) after Scotland’s highest civil court ruled that it was compatible with UK and European Union (EU) law.
WSTA chief executive Miles Beale said today’s ruling “is just the first step in a long legal process” while SWA chairman Gavin Hewitt said “this issue will eventually be considered in Luxembourg”.
The SWA and other European wine and spirits producers argued that the law, passed at the Scottish Parliament last year, would restrict trade and insisted that this was unjustified even if it improved health and saved lives.
They also said it will be ineffective in tackling alcohol misuse, will penalise responsible drinkers and damage the industry.
The also argued that the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 breached the Acts of Union, which created the UK, and the Scotland Act 1998, which created the Scottish Parliament.
Judge Lord Doherty, sitting at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, said: “The court ruled that the Acts of Union were not an impediment to the MUP measures. The court also decided that the measures were not incompatible with EU law.
“It held that in so far as the measures had equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions on imports they were justified on the grounds of the protection of the life and health of humans.”
Speaking at a press conference in the SWA’s offices in Edinburgh, Mr Hewitt said: “I believe that since it is European law which is at issue, this issue will eventually be considered in Luxembourg.
“It was always possible that the judge could make a decision like this. We are disappointed. It’s not an issue of shareholder value – it’s an issue of the EU trading rules and the provisions of the European treaty.
“We believe it will be ruled illegal because European law indicates that because we’ve had the 30 years of judgments in the ECJ in Luxembourg which has ruled against MUP.”
Mr Beale said: “While this decision is disappointing, it is just the first step in a long legal process. The SWA’s decision to appeal is the right one and we support it.
“We are particularly concerned that the judge has failed to refer this matter to the ECJ. The European Commission and some 10 member states have expressed their concerns about the legality of MUP under EU law.
“MUP is an ineffective measure which will punish the majority of responsible drinkers through higher prices.”
Scottish Government figures suggest a 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol would take the cost of a 70cl bottle of vodka to more than £13 while four cans of 9% lager would increase to at least £7.92.
Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said: “We have always believed MUP is the right thing to do to tackle Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.
“We now look forward to being able to implement MUP and making that transformational change in Scotland’s relationship with alcohol.”
Dr Neil Dewhurst, president of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, said: “In practical terms we believe this means that public health in Scotland is more important than commercial interests. Doctors throughout the country will applaud this decision and the leadership of the Scottish Government.
“Now that this hurdle has been cleared minimum pricing should be implemented without delay. ”
Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive Dr Evelyn Gillan said: “We call on the SWA to drop any further legal action.
“We know from the evidence in Canada that MUP saves lives. With 24 people dying every week in Scotland because of alcohol, there is no reason to delay this measure any further.
“The alcohol industry has consistently opposed MUP as they oppose any measures that are likely to be effective. They have followed in the footsteps of their colleagues in the tobacco industry by seeking to delay the implementation of policies that are clearly in the public interest.
“Thankfully, today the public interest has prevailed over the profits of the big alcohol corporations.”
Dr Peter Rice, chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: “The alcohol industry should drop their opposition to minimum unit price, accept democratically determined controls and stop putting private profit ahead of public health.”
Not everyone in the drinks industry is opposed to MUP, with Glasgow brewers Tennents welcoming today’s ruling as “an important step towards helping tackle Scotland’s alcohol misuse issues”.
Managing director John Gilligan said: “We have consistently supported the Scottish Government’s efforts to try to combat the problem of over-consumption of alcohol amongst a minority of consumers and we continue to believe MUP can be a key part of the solution.”