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EU court rules that MUP breaches trade laws

Spirits trade associations have welcomed the ruling by a European court stating that Scotland’s plan to introduce a minimum unit price on alcohol breaches EU trade laws.

The European Court of Justice has issued a pivotal ruling in the spirits industry’s fight against minimum unit pricing

Today, the European Court of Justice agreed with EU advocate general Yves Bot’s official opinion that MUP contravenes EU laws if other options to tackle harmful drinking – such as increased taxation – exist.

The ruling stated: “The Court of Justice considers that the effect of the Scottish legislation is significantly to restrict the market, and this might be avoided by the introduction of a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol instead of a measure imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.”

However, the EU court said it was ultimately up to the Scottish national courts to decide whether other measures are capable of protecting human health, while being less restrictive of EU trade.

Scotland approved a 50p minimum unit cost on alcoholic beverages in 2012 as part of the government’s efforts to crackdown on harmful drinking.

Trade bodies the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and Spirits Europe, along with other parties, challenged the legislation, but their arguments were thrown out of Scotland’s Court of Session in 2013.

As such, the organisations took their plight to the European Court of Justice.

‘Issue settled’

David Frost, chief executive of the SWA, said: “We welcome the European Court’s ruling. The SWA always said European Union law issues were central to this case, and so it has proved. This settles EU law issues once and for all.

“The Court has confirmed that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is a restriction on trade, and that it is illegal to choose MUP where there are less restrictive ways of achieving the same end.

“The Scottish courts will now reflect on the implications of the ruling and all the evidence, before issuing a final judgement.

“This ruling opens the way to moving the debate on and allowing us to address alcohol misuse with practical measures that actually work. Alcohol-related deaths have fallen by a third over the last decade in Scotland, which suggests we are already on the right path. We remain committed to working closely with the Scottish Government and everyone else with an interest.”

While health advocates and lawmakers claim MUP is a way to tackle harmful drinking, industry members have called it an “illegal barrier to trade” that will not be effective in its intended cause, since the majority of harmful drinkers are “not price sensitive”.

“We welcome the ECJ ruling,” said Spirits Europe advocate general Paul Skehan. “This is an early Christmas present for moderate drinkers everywhere, who already pay astronomical levels of tax on each sip they take.

“The Court has confirmed that MUP is a barrier to trade and therefore illegal if there are less disruptive measures available to tackle alcohol misuse.

“Clearly there are other measures available, and therefore this MUP proposal should be dropped.  We welcome the clarification of this important principle since it affects every member state.”

Skehan added that he believes it is now time for orgnisations to tackle alcohol-related harm “in partnership, not in conflict through the courts.”

The Scottish courts will now consider the European court’s decision and will make a final ruling on MUP in due course.

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