Scotland will be able to set a minimum alcohol pricing tariff according to the EU Supreme Court, who rejected a bid to halt the process by the Scotch Whisky Association in November. Although the legislation had been passed by the Scottish Parliament 5 years ago, it has not been able to become law because of legal challenges. The EU court agreed that the law would not breach EU legislation and that it would enable the Scottish Parliament to achieve their aim of raising the price of cheap but high-strength alcohol to deter people from overindulging. The ruling was accepted by the Scotch Whisky Association.
The Scottish Parliament had been concerned at how cheaply strong alcohol could be bought. Alcohol Focus Scotland, a charity that aims to reduce the harm that drink causes has claimed that 14 units, or the minimum recommended weekly amount of alcohol could cost around £2.50 if using own brands vodka or whisky, or super-strength cider. The same group also referenced a report from Cancer Research UK in which young people were asked about their views on drink and how it is marketed. A wide number of brands were mentioned, unprompted, by young people aged 13-18, with some references to the kinds of drinks bought if they wanted to get drunk quickly and cheaply.
The Scottish Parliament proposal recommended that alcohol be priced using a minimum price per unit, suggesting 50p as the minimum price. This ensures that the stronger the alcohol, the higher the price. A cheap bottle of red wine which contains around 9.4 units of alcohol would cost £4.69 and a 70cl bottle of own brand whisky, which contains around 28 units of alcohol would cost at least £14. A normal strength cider at 5% alcohol would cost at least £2.50, however the super-strength cider at 7.5% would cost a minimum of £3.75 per litre. Minimum pricing was suggested because it tackles the problem at source: the cost of a pint at a pub is unlikely to rise, as it costs more to drink at a pub, however, the policy aims to tackle the problem of shops selling cheap alcohol as loss leaders. The shops selling the drink will be able to keep the money.
The laws will be able to expire after 6 years, unless the Scottish Parliament choose to renew them. The EU Supreme Court felt that this was a big part of enabling the judgement to go through. They also felt that minimum pricing was easy to understand, and a way that would ensure that the retailers passed the cost on to the customer, rather than absorbing it themselves. The law would therefore achieve its aim of increasing the price of the cheapest but strongest alcohol.
Consumption of alcohol has been linked with seven cancers, including mouth, oesophageal, breast and bowel cancer. The alcohol companies have been accused of playing down this link in favour of their profits by cancer and alcohol charities. Alcohol drinking has long been a concern in Scotland as it has been estimated that 25% of Scots regularly drink above the national weekly guidelines. Drinking is widespread across the middle-aged while levels of alcohol consumption in the UK are amongst the highest in the western world.
The judgement will be watched with interest in other parts of the UK. Wales have already announced an intention to introduce a minimum price for alcohol of 50p. They hope that it could become law by summer 2018. The English Parliament announced an intention to introduce alcohol minimum pricing under David Cameron, but it was dropped due to lobbying by the alcohol firms. They may soon feel that the time is right to try again while Northern Ireland announced that they too were considering minimum alcohol pricing following the Scottish Parliament’s EU Supreme Court victory. Scotland is likely to make it law early in 2018.