This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.
Moves by Scotland and England to impose minimum prices on alcohol are set for legal challenge if introduced, industry sources have told EURACTIV.
Last month the UK joined Scotland in signalling that minimum prices would be imposed at supermarkets in England and Wales in an attempt to stifle cheap offers thought to allure binge drinkers.
The Scottish government is poised to become the first government in Europe to deliver minimum pricing, and the Irish government has expressed and interest in such a move too.
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association told EURACTIV that it, "in common with others in the industry," was in the process of detailed consultation with legal advisors with a view to a challenge.
A breach of trade rules?
The Scotch Whisky Association believes minimum pricing in Scotland breaches European and global free trade rules, by interfering with free trade and open competition. It argues that it would also damage its diplomatic efforts to force other countries to drop tariffs that discriminate against Scotch.
Sources within the spirits industry told EURACTIV that the move was seen as particularly damaging to efforts to unblock prohibitive tariffs in potentially lucrative markets such as India. The imposition of "health taxes" in Europe would provide cover for such markets to continue to slap large tariffs on spirits arriving from Europe if they cited similar health justifications.
The spokesman for the Whisky Association said that the first challenge would likely come after the imposition of the minimum pricing when the anti-competitive impact on traders begins to bite.
Governments prepare for challenge
Meanwhile the governments of both Scotland and the UK appear to be bracing themselves for legal challenge.
Scottish Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently told a committee of the Scottish Parliament that it was "almost certain" that the pricing plans will be challenged in the Scottish courts.
"I work on the basis there will be a legal challenge. My job is to make sure that we have legislation that can meet that challenge, and I am confident that it can."
Meanwhile UK Public Health Minister Anne Milton warned in January that a minimum price per unit could be open to legal challenges and might fall foul of European competition law.