Today, 3rd September 2015, the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) Yves Bot, presented his opinion on the Scottish Government’s legislation to introduce a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) for alcohol, which states that it does not contravene European law, provided it meets the objective of protecting public health.

The recommendation brings the Scottish Government a step closer to implementing the measure, which was passed over three years ago.
The Advocate General’s conclusion includes:

• That the Common Agricultural Policy does not preclude national rules which prescribe a minimum retail price for wines according to the quantity of alcohol in the product sold, provided that those rules are justified by the objectives of the protection of human health, and in particular the objective of combating alcohol abuse, and do not go beyond what is necessary in order to achieve that objective.

• That it is for the national court to decide whether the means chosen are appropriate for the attainment of the objective pursued and that, in making that choice, the Member State did not exceed its discretion, and that it has taken into account the extent to which that measure impedes the free movement of goods when it is compared with alternative measures that would enable the same objective to be attained and when all the interests involved are weighed up.

Commenting on the Advocate General’s opinion, Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said: “This brings us one step closer to a victory for public health. It can be quite clearly demonstrated that taxation alone cannot achieve the same effect as minimum unit pricing, partly because the EU tax rules prohibit member states from taxing all alcoholic drinks by strength. The Scottish Government acknowledged that minimum pricing was the best way they could target the cheapest alcohol that causes the most harm to individuals, families and communities. It is disgraceful that multinational alcohol producers were able to block a government from introducing a policy intended to save lives. However we are confident that in the end public health will triumph over big business in this case.”

MUP is a targeted intervention, and would achieve greater results on preventing the sale of very cheap alcohol than compared with an alternative option of increased duties of alcohol beverages. The figure below demonstrates how introducing a 50p MUP will achieve a result that would be hard to achieve with increasing the duty levels.

Legislation to introduce a binding Minimum Price per unit of alcohol of 50p was passed unopposed by the Scottish Parliament in May 2012. The legislation was due to come into force in April 2013 but has been delayed by a legal challenge brought by a consortium of alcohol producers, led by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), Spirits Europe and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV). The opponents of the Scottish legislation have sought inaccurately to frame this as a Bureaucracy v Industry issue, rather than as a vital life- saving measure.

The proposed Scottish legislation is important as it would be the first time a minimum unit price for alcohol has been introduced in Europe. The Scottish Government argues that it is a vital measure to protect public health, faced with a high and increasing number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland, which puts a significant burden on health services and social services, as well as on families and society in general. Several other countries are keen for Scotland to introduce the policy and to emulate it to reduce alcohol harm. For this reason the alcohol industry is bringing legal challenges against the Scottish Government’s policy – in order to prevent other governments from taking effective action against harmful alcohol use.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, was among many health experts who were encouraged by the Advocate General’s message. He said: “Today’s opinion from the Advocate General is encouraging since evidence shows that minimum unit pricing is an evidence-based, targeted measure that produces public health benefits where other policies fail. Taxation alone cannot achieve the same impact as minimum unit pricing which targets the high-strength, low-cost products which cause the most harm. We welcome the good news that the Scottish Government is one step closer to implementing minimum unit pricing. The Scottish Government led the way on this policy and it is disappointing that it has been deliberately derailed by the alcohol industry which brought this legal challenge, undermining the will of a democratically elected government and costing more lives in the process. It is a terrible shame that so much time and money has been spent fighting a battle with big business determined to protect their profits at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing. The time has come for governments across the UK listen to the evidence and not be swayed by multinational companies with vested interests. We await the final verdict in due course.”

The Advocate General’s Opinion precedes the full judgement of the ECJ on the case later this year, after which, the case will be referred back to the Scottish court. The Advocate General’s opinion will marks a significant stage in the Scottish Government’s battle to introduce the legislation as a ground- breaking measure to protect public health, which is supported by Health bodies across Europe and several national governments.