Landmark ruling - minimum unit pricing of alcohol to be introduced in Scotland

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The Supreme Court delivered a unanimous judgement today confirming that the legislation [Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012] proposed by the Scottish Government to introduce a minimum price of selling alcohol at 50p per unit of alcohol was "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim" and fully complies with EU law. 

The aim is essentially to tackle Scotland's "unhealthy relationship" with drink and reduce levels of hazardous and harmful drinking. It is reported alcohol can be purchased for as little as 18p per Unit and that the increase to 50p will lead to fewer drink related deaths and health issues. Timing of its implementation remains uncertain but when the Act finally becomes law there is a requirement for the Government to review it after 6 years to confirm whether it should then continue. 

This decision is the culmination of over 5 years of legal battles between the Scottish Government and the Scotch Whisky Association (the SWA) and others.  The SWA claimed the legislation was not lawful under EU legislation, in layman's terms, being a restraint of trade.   The Scottish Government argued it was a necessary measure "to protect human life and health" and accordingly could be implemented even though the measure could constitute a trade restriction, relying on Article 36 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union.  Any measure under that Article however, must be proportionate.

The Court of Session unsurprisingly found in favour of the Scottish Government and the matter ended up in the European Court.  The EU Court decided that such a measure may breach EU law if other tax options proved just as effective in achieving the aim, but that was for a national court to determine whether they did and sent it back to the Court of Sessions to make that determination.  In 2016 the Court of Sessions ruled a minimum unit price was the most effective measure "to protect human life and health" from hazardous drinking and it is that decision which the Supreme Court have upheld today.

The Welsh Government are already in advanced discussion about introducing a minimum unit price. David Cameron had promised the measure but it was later taken off the Government's agenda when it concluded there was insufficient evidence to justify its implementation. It is highly likely we will see minimum unit pricing for the entirety of the UK though one cannot dismiss the possibility of a challenge to the evidence in countries outside Scotland.