Minimum alcohol pricing moves closer after Scottish court ruling

Judge rules measure, which would set a lowest price for drink, not a breach of EU law

The introduction of a minimum price for alcohol in Ireland has moved a step closer following a decision by a Scottish court backing the measure.

The Court of Sessions in Edinburgh has ruled against a challenge by the Scotch whisky industry, which claimed minimum unit pricing breached European law.

The decision paves the way for the Scottish parliament to implement the policy, which has been delayed by legal challenges since 2012.

It also diminishes the legal threat to similar Irish legislation, which has been delayed but is due back in the Seanad next week.

The Irish drinks industry urged caution, urging the Government to “reflect carefully” before introducing similar measures in the Republic.

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, said ministers should be “mindful of the Border” when considering whether to go ahead with minimum unit pricing. “With the decline in the value of sterling post the Brexit vote, cross border shopping is on the increase and raising the price of alcohol in the Republic on a unilateral basis would further exacerbate this while doing little to address harm,” said ABFI director Ross Mac Mathuna.

However, the National Off-Licence Association urged the Government to push ahead with legislation on the issue, while the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland said it could save 200 lives a year after 20 years.

Alcohol Action Ireland welcomed the ruling and said it was positive for Ireland as minimum unit pricing was a key measure in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

Minimum unit pricing sets a floor price below which alcohol may not be sold. The effect would vary from product to product but would be most significant at the lower end of the market. A can of supermarket beer would cost about €1.32 at a minimum, while a bottle of wine would sell for about €7.52.

The Scotch Whisky Association brought a challenge claiming the measure was a breach of trade law. It said other policies should be considered as an alternative to minimum pricing, including an increase in tax.

However, the Scottish court found the advantage of the proposed system was that it was linked to the strength of alcohol.

The alternative of increasing tax, with or without a ban on below cost sales, would be less effective than minimum pricing, it said.

The issue of minimum pricing was referred to the European Court of Justice, which ruled last December that European law may have been breached.

However, the court said it was ultimately up to national courts to make the decision about whether to implement it.

The judgment could be challenged in the UK Supreme Court.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times