‘Plough on’ with setting minimum pricing on alcohol

Publicans have urged Health Minister Leo Varadkar to “plough on” with plans to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol following a European Court of Justice ruling appeared to make the regulations harder to implement.

The Scottish government had sought to fix a minimum price for alcohol in what would be a European first, but faced opposition from the Scotch Whisky Association and others, while companies in the pub trade had supported the measure.

The advocate general to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Yves Bot, yesterday delivered an interim ruling on the issue which said setting a minimum price for alcohol would only be justified to protect public health if no other mechanism, such as tax increases, was found to have worked.

According to the advocate general of the ECJ: “A member state can, in order to pursue the objective of combating alcohol abuse, which forms part of the objective of the protection of public health, choose rules that impose a minimum retail price of alcoholic beverages that restrict 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 has additional advantages or fewer disadvantages than the alternative measure.”

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the ECJ ruling meant domestic courts had the final say on the issue of minimum pricing and said the measure could still come into force.

‘Plough on’ with setting minimum pricing on alcohol

Nicola Sturgeon

Here, Mr Varadkar appeared to take a similar view. He welcomed the interim ruling and said the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be published in the coming weeks.

The bill includes provisions for minimum unit pricing, structural separation, health labelling on products that contain alcohol, restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol, the regulation of sports sponsorship, and restrictions on certain promotional activities, with Mr Varadkar stating it was part of a range of measures aimed at reducing alcohol consumption.

Minimum unit pricing (MUP) would be based on price per gram of alcohol.

As for the ECJ ruling, Mr Varadkar said: “I am encouraged by the opinion of the advocate general which indicates that minimum unit pricing may be compatible with EU law if it can be shown to be more effective than other alternative measures.

‘Plough on’ with setting minimum pricing on alcohol

Leo Varadkar

“Therefore, I will be asking my officials to study his opinion and its implications as we wait for the final judgment of the Court which is expected towards the end of the year.”

Padraig Cribben, Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) CEO, said his members are supportive of the bill and want it to go ahead despite the ECJ ruling.

“We are anxious that the minister is not demurred by what is in the [ECJ] opinion today and ploughs ahead,” Mr Cribben said.

The VFI said the abuse and misuse of cheap alcohol being sold by supermarkets that sell alcohol as a loss leader needed to be urgently tackled.

Mr Cribben claimed he was aware of cases in which bottles of vodka were being sold at less than the excise duty and Vat costs. He added he was “concerned” that, for MUP to be introduced, “all the stops have to be pulled out”.

The Licensed Vintners Association, which represents Dublin pubs, said it was extremely disappointed at the ECJ ruling, calling it a “lost opportunity”.

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