With the budget due today, the decision of the Supreme Court to approve the Scottish decision to introduce ‘minimum pricing’ may offer the Chancellor the opportuity to introduce a similar scheme in England and Wales.
The sale of cheap alcohol has long been recognised as a serious threat to health and, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has approved a controversial minimum pricing scheme which will come into effect north of the border.
By the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012, the Scottish Parliament had sought to introduce a scheme whereby retailers would be obliged to charge a minimum price per unit of alcohol. However, implementation of the Act had been delayed pending the outcome of a judicial review challenge brought by alcohol industry bodies, including the Scotch Whisky Association.
The Association’s lawyers argued that the scheme conflicted with a number of fundamental principles of EU law concerning interference in the free market and the free movement of goods. Following a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union, however, the challenge was rejected by the Scottish courts.
In dismissing the Association’s appeal, the Court noted that a balance had to be struck between the benefits of free enterprise and human health. The aim of the Act was not to eradicate alcohol consumption, or to render it prohibitively expensive for drinkers, but to strike at alcohol misuse and over-consumption that manifested themselves in public health and social problems.
The Association argued that the same objectives could be achieved, with less interference in the free market, by imposing additional tax on alcohol. However, the Court found that minimum pricing was likely to achieve better targeted results and would be simpler to understand and enforce. In particular, it would discourage the sale of alcohol at below cost price in order to attract customers onto retail premises. It would be wrong for the Court to second guess the value put upon health by the Scottish Government and arguments that it should have gone further in assessing the market impact of the scheme were not realistic.