Representatives of Europe’s wine and spirits industries have joined with the Scotch Whisky Association in a legal battle aiming to halt the minimum pricing of alcohol.

The Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill in May that introduced a £0.50 (0.63) minimum price for a unit of alcohol, the first legally-binding minimum price within the European Union.

From as early as April 2013, cut-price alcoholic beverages will be outlawed in Scotland. The bill is intended to reduce binge drinking - and thus improve health and crime levels.

The European Spirits Organisation (CEPS) and the Comité des Vins – representing Europe’s liqueur and wine producers respectively – attached themselves to an action in the Scottish Court of Sessions launched yesterday (19 July) by the Scotch Whisky Association to challenge  the Scottish government.

Trade distortion

They argue that minimum pricing represents an illegal barrier to trade, will discriminate between companies in the market and fail to address harmful drinking.

The group added that a minimum price is illegal under EU and global competition laws and would also ruin the Scottish whisky industry's efforts to counter price controls and high tariffs in overseas markets.

Producers also fear the scheme will set a precedent for other member states to follow the Scottish example. The United Kingdom and Ireland are currently mulling the introduction of such a rule.

They also hope that the case will create impetus for a formal European Commission objection to the Scottish government’s minimum unit pricing (MUP) legislation on grounds that it distorts trade.

The Scottish case will probably be heard this autumn. Meanwhile, a consultation period on the new rule will be held until 26 September, following the UK’s notification to the Commission in June of Scotland’s intention to go ahead with the pricing strategy.

Once this period ends, drinks producers are hoping that a member state will raise objections with the Commission, forcing it to consider the issue afresh and delaying it for a further three-month period.

Health groups: A ‘life saver’

Health groups are strongly in favour of minimum pricing, however. Monika Kosińska, secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said: "I hope other EU governments are encouraged by this move, and follow suit in a measure that, if applied across the rest of Europe, would save many lives every year.”

The Scottish health minister, Nicola Sturgeon, acknowledged the move by the Scotch Whisky Association would delay the policy’s introduction but said she would “vigorously defend” the action. She seemed bullish that the state would win the case, citing previous failed attempts by the tobacco industry and insurers to block legislation on the grounds of legality.