Scotched: Whisky industry fails to halt Scotland's plan for minimum alcohol price

Opposition by Scotch Whisky Association thrown out by Edinburgh's highest court

A legal challenge to the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland has been dismissed in court.

Scotland's highest civil court has refused a petition led by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) against legislation which would see a minimum unit price of 50p brought in north of the border.

Judge Lord Doherty, sitting at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, has ruled that the legislation was not outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament, and that it is within the devolved competence and powers of Scottish ministers.

The SWA and other European wine and spirits producers argued that the law, passed at the Scottish Parliament last year, breaches the UK's European Union (EU) treaty obligations because it would restrain trade.

They also said it will be ineffective in tackling alcohol misuse, will penalise responsible drinkers and damage the industry.

The SWA and its partners argued that any restriction on EU trade could not be justified on health grounds.

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.

A summary of today's judgment said: "The court ruled that the Acts of Union were not an impediment to the minimum pricing 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."

Holyrood ministers have said they are committed to introducing the policy to address Scotland's unhealthy relationship with drink and save lives.

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 per cent lager would increase to at least £7.92.

Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "We welcome today's favourable opinion from the Court of Session on minimum unit pricing of alcohol.

"We have always believed minimum unit pricing is the right thing to do to tackle Scotland's problematic relationship with alcohol.

"Minimum unit pricing will target cheap alcohol relative to strength that is favoured by hazardous and harmful drinkers, and which contributes to much of the alcohol-related harm we see in Scotland.

"We now look forward to being able to implement minimum unit pricing and making that transformational change in Scotland's relationship with alcohol."

Scotland's national alcohol charity has urged the SWA to drop any further legal action and for minimum pricing to be implemented without delay following the decision.

Alcohol Focus Scotland chief executive Dr Evelyn Gillan said: "The Court of Session has issued a clear, unambiguous judgment, and finds no grounds for the drinks industry's action against the Scottish Government. In light of this, we call on the Scotch Whisky Association to drop any further legal action.

"We know from the evidence in Canada that minimum pricing 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 minimum unit pricing 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."

The SWA will appeal against today's decision by the Court of Session, according to chief executive Gavin Hewitt.

He said: "We are disappointed our petition for judicial review has been refused.

"We are surprised at the ruling in light of 30 years of European case law on minimum unit pricing (MUP). We will be appealing against this decision and we remain confident of our position.

"The view from Europe is very different to that expressed by the court and we are not alone in having concerns about the legality of MUP.

"We are joined in our legal action by spiritsEUROPE and Comite Vins. The European Commission and more than 10 member states have expressed their concerns that MUP contravenes European Union trading rules and their opposition to the Scottish proposals.

"We have consistently opposed MUP so our decision to appeal should not come as a surprise. The Scottish Government has agreed to not introduce MUP until the legal process, including appeals, is complete."

A spokesman for the Office of the Advocate General said: "The Advocate General made submissions in this case on behalf of the UK Government supporting the compatibility of minimum unit pricing with EU law.

"He therefore welcomes the court's decision to refuse the Scotch Whisky Association's challenge, but recognises that this decision may be subject to an appeal."

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) welcomed the decision of the Court of Session.

RCP special adviser on alcohol Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: "This decision sends out a strong message to the drinks industry that the health community is not prepared to be steamrollered when the health of the public is at stake.

"Scotland has a proud history of leading the way in UK public health with measures like the ban on smoking in public places, and we hope that the strong line the Scottish Government has taken will also strengthen the resolve of Westminster on this issue."

Dr Neil Dewhurst, president of the RCP 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."

Dr Peter Rice, chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: "We urge the Scottish Government to move quickly to implement this important legislation. In parallel, the alcohol industry needs to desist from efforts to block the implementation of this evidence-based policy.

"The cost of alcohol relative to incomes is a crucial determinant in rates of harm. This is why the cost of alcohol needs to be regulated. The measures Scotland is taking have been supported by health bodies throughout the world. The alcohol industry should drop their opposition to minimum unit price, accept democratically determined controls and stop putting private profit ahead of public health."

SNP MSP Bob Doris, deputy convener of Holyrood's Health and Sport Committee, said: "Today's decision shows that we were right to push ahead with minimum pricing legislation.

"Nobody has ever claimed that minimum pricing is a silver bullet for all of Scotland's alcohol-related woes, but it is an important tool that this country needs and we now look forward to being able to implement the policy."

PA

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