Supreme Court rules minimum pricing for alcohol is legal

Caitlin Logan

Attempt by alcohol companies to block pricing regulation in Scotland has failed

THE UK SUPREME COURT has ruled unanimously that the minimum unit pricing legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012 is legal and proportionate under EU law, following an appeal by the Scotch Whisky Association.

The ruling was the culmination of a five year struggle between the alcohol industry and the Scottish Government, who gained widespread support in parliament for the legal change which aims to tackle the health effects of alcohol.

Health Secretary Shona Robison welcomed the decision, describing it as a “landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol”.

She said: “This has been a long journey and in the five years since the Act was passed, alcohol related deaths in Scotland have increased. With alcohol available for sale at just 18 pence a unit, that death toll remains unacceptably high.

READ MORE: Report shows dangers of cheap alcohol – days before minimum pricing case

“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.”

Robison said that she expected that the Scotch Whisky Association would accept the decision, and reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s support for the whisky industry. “We will continue to work closely with the sector to ensure its economic success,” she said.

The Scottish Government intends to set the minimum unit price at 50 pence, subject to consultation and a Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment.

The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 was passed by 86 votes to one (a mistaken vote by the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham) in the Scottish Parliament, with 32 abstentions. 

Scottish Labour did not back the legislation at the time due to what were described as “unintended consequences” through which the party argued alcohol retailers could generate profits and undermine the bill’s purpose.

Scottish Labour’s public health spokesperson Colin Smyth MSP reiterated these concerns in responding to the news of the Supreme Court’s decision: “Minimum Unit Pricing is not a silver bullet and – on its own – will not solve Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.

“Labour will engage constructively with any plans the government brings forward but concerns remain that unlike a tax based solution, the only guarantee is increased profits for major supermarket chains.

“They’ve attempted to use the same tactics of the tobacco industry, but thankfully they’ve failed.” Green MSP Alison Johnstone

“Scotland needs a comprehensive, fully-funded strategy to tackle problem drinking – and any approach to tackling Scotland’s unhealthy drinking culture has to see an end to the SNP’s budget cuts to support services.”

Scottish Green health spokesperson Alison Johnstone MSP welcomed the decision and said the alcohol companies who attempted to stall the legislation “should be ashamed of themselves”.

She said: “They’ve attempted to use the same tactics of the tobacco industry, but thankfully they’ve failed.

“Health charities and doctors have expressed support for minimum pricing as part of Scotland’s effort to reduce the damage that alcohol can cause and now the Scottish Government must get on and implement this urgent public health priority.

“Greens were the only opposition MSPs to support minimum pricing in the 2007-11 parliament and again voted for it when it was passed in 2012.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has pushed for the Scottish Government to implement the minimum pricing as quickly as possible. He said: “In excess alcohol wrecks lives, families and communities. Low prices for decades have increased that harm caused in Scotland.  

“We’ve waited for five years to get this breakthrough so it is vital that the Scottish Government acts without delay before any more lives are wrecked. I want to see the Government set the Minimum Unit Price before Christmas.” 

READ MORE: Whisky galore: but is the whisky industry paying for its round?

Health charities have also hailed the decision, with Judi Rhys, Chief Executive of British Liver Trust commenting: “The MUP ruling for Scotland is a welcome first step to help stem the rise in deaths from alcohol related liver disease.

“There has been 400% increase of liver disease over the last 40 years and at the same time alcohol has become less expensive and more easily available.

“This ruling will impact the most harmful drinkers as MUP affects the cheapest booze and the heaviest drinkers. We look forward to MUP being adopted across the rest of the UK.”

Dr Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, said that opponents to minimum pricing had “shamed the reputation of their industry”.

He said: “As MUP has been delayed, we have seen the tragic, premature deaths of 24 people every week in Scotland as a result of alcohol misuse, many of them in our poorest communities, and affecting families across our nation.”

Some within the alcohol industry have been keen to come forward to express their support for the ruling. Paul Bartlett, Group Corporate Relations Director, for C&C Group which produces Tennent’s Lager and Magners Cider said the company had been “a strong and vocal supporter” of the regulations since 2011.

He said: “We welcome today’s landmark decision. It is the right move to make; a progressive step forward in tackling the problems of alcohol misuse in Scotland and we congratulate the Scottish Government on its perseverance.”

Picture courtesy of Andrea

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