Scotland’s plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol risks breaching European Union law. Edinburgh should explore other ways to protect public health such as increasing tax, a senior adviser to the European Court of Justice said on Thursday (3 September).
Advocate General Yves Bot said in his opinion for court judges that a member state can impose a minimum price, which restricts trade and distorts competition, only if this system was superior to an alternative measure.
Bot said that it was for a Scottish court to examine whether it was better to adopt the alternative, increased taxation, but added it was difficult to justify a minimum price, which appeared less consistent and effective.
Judges of the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court, follow the advocate general’s opinion in the majority of cases, but their opinions are not binding. The court’s ruling would normally come within three to six months.
The Scottish Parliament proposed in 2012 introducing a minimum retail selling prices for all alcoholic beverages, based on the strength and volume.
The Scotch Whisky Association and two European federations for spirits and for wines challenged the legislation, saying it restricted the trade of drinks between Scotland and EU member states and could distort competition between alcohol producers.
EU law, they said, states that the price of wine should be determined by normal market forces and that excise duties could equally meet the aim of the legislation.
That aim is to reduce harm to society and to individual health from excessive or abusive consumption of alcohol. Scottish ministers, who have proposed a minimum price per unit of 50 pence (€0.69), have argued the minimum pricing system would target the relatively cheap alcoholic beverages typically purchased by compulsive or under age drinkers.
According to the Scottish government, the impact of excessive consumption is estimated to cost £3.6 billion per year, equivalent to £900 for every adult in Scotland, who buy on average almost a fifth more alcohol than their English and Welsh counterparts.