Varadkar still committed to plan for minimum alcohol pricing

Minister for Health asks officials to study judgment by European Court of Justice

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar says he remains committed to the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol despite an adverse European court ruling on the proposal.

Mr Varadkar has asked his officials to study the implications of the judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in conjunction with the office of the Attorney General.

The court ruled the Scottish government’s plan for a minimum alcohol price would breach EU law if less restrictive tax measures could be introduced.

Restrict market

Judges concluded the policy would restrict the market, which could be avoided by the introduction of an alternative tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol.

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They said it was ultimately for the national court of an EU state to determine whether other measures would be as effective in achieving the desired public health benefit.

Mr Varadkar said the Government knows a strong and convincing case can be made for minimum unit pricing over other measures.

“We believe that it is a proportionate measure and the only measure that would effectively target the widespread access to alcohol that is very cheap relative to its strength,” he said.

“We will continue to pursue this measure through the legislative process and remain convinced that minimum unit pricing has a very important role to play in addressing this major public health challenge.”

Ruling welcomed

The Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) welcomed the ECJ ruling. It said it meant minimum unit pricing is unlikely to be implementable in Ireland.

“ABFI wants to play its part in tackling alcohol misuse and believes that the reintroduction of a ban on below-cost selling would be a much more effective means of ensuring alcohol is not sold as a loss leader,” it said in a statement. It said this would end the deep discounting that distorts the market.

It said it now wanted the Department of Health "to engage with the industry to prioritise finding an effective solution to tackle the sale of cheap alcohol - such as reintroducing the ban on selling alcohol below cost price - which has been proven to be effective in this market".

Legal challenge

Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) officials mounted a legal challenge alongside other European wine and spirits producers after legislation to introduce minimum pricing was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012.

The case will now be referred back to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a final decision.

Earlier this month, Mr Varadkar published the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which will introduce minimum pricing in Ireland.

The proposed legislation, which was to be passed by the middle of next year, will likely be impacted upon by the ECJ ruling.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times