The Scottish Government's Bill to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol passed into legislation with cross-party backing but the policy is currently in legal limbo.
Earlier this month, the Scotch Whisky Association and Wine and Spirit Trade Association lost an action in the Court of Session when judges dismissed the industry bodies' claims that Holyrood had acted beyond its powers and the measure breached European law. Its opponents continue to try to prevent it taking effect. They intend to appeal and are prepared to take their case to the UK's Supreme Court and, the European Court of Justice.
Last year, the European Commission warned that the proposed minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would act as a barrier to free trade. Lord Doherty noted there was no suggestion from either party the measure was a disguised restriction on trade.
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The argument now comes down to the slippery concept of proportionality. The public health benefit must outweigh the disadvantages to free trade of imposing a minimum price. Lord Doherty ruled that minimum unit pricing is necessary based on objective evidence and achieves its stated aims (of causing "hazardous and harmful drinkers" to consume less) and alternative measures (taxation) would be likely to be less effective.
Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil has attempted to shorten the legal process by asking the European Commission to take heed of this judgment. It should be on the agenda of the next meeting the Commission, the Scottish Government and the UK; it is important this matter is resolved. Normally, preventing free trade works against the interests of the consumer but in the case of alcohol, the evidence points to minimum pricing being for the greater good. This is disputed by the drinks industry but the policy is backed by the medical profession and the police. A recent study by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine of the evidence submitted to the Scottish Government's consultation found some parts of the drinks industry and supermarkets had made unsubstantiated claims and relied on weak evidence, such as opinion polls. The introduction of a sunset clause, requiring the Scottish legislation to be re-evaluated after five years, effectively provides the largest-ever test of minimum pricing. If the drinks industry believes the positive studies to be wrong, they can be confident the policy will be reversed.
There is no dispute that alcohol abuse causes enormous harm in Scotland in terms of illness, premature death, violent behaviour and lasting damage to family relationships. The question is how to change this relationship with alcohol from a destructive one to a positive one. The Herald has consistently supported minimum pricing, while recognising that education is also required.
Whether Scotland will achieve the estimated £64 million of total harm reduction in the first year of operation remains to be seen but even if this is over-optimistic, lives will be saved and illness and crime reduced. The European Commission could ensure that happens by accepting the case for the Scottish legislation.