May 3, 2013 – The Scotch Whisky Association lost what appears to be just the first round of litigation over a government plan to impose minimum pricing for alcohol in an attempt to fight binge drinking. Lord Doherty rejected the SWA’s arguments that the Scottish Parliament didn’t have the authority to enact minimum pricing under its devolved powers, and that the plan does not violate the Act of Union between Scotland and the United Kingdom.

The plan would set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, which would raise the base price for a bottle of Scotch whisky to £14. It is being seen as a precedent for similar action in England being considered by the David Cameron-led coalition in Parliament.

Scotch Whisky Association CEO Gavin Hewitt criticized the ruling, and immediately promised an appeal. In an interview with The Guardian, he predicted the final decision on minimum pricing will come from the European Court of Justice:

“The crux of the matter has always been the issue of European law; that will remain the issue which will have to be addressed, and which we will be addressing in our appeal.”

The association’s ultimate position is that minimum pricing schemes are illegal under European law because they conflict with common market rules for European Union member countries.

Health professionals praised the ruling, which they view as a natural extension of the public smoking bans enacted in recent years. Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil told The Guardian:

“We have always believed minimum unit pricing is the right thing to do to tackle Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol. Minimum unit pricing will target cheap alcohol relative to strength that is favoured by hazardous and harmful drinkers and which contributes to much of the alcohol-related harm we see in Scotland. We now look forward to being able to implement minimum unit pricing and making that transformational change in Scotland’s relationship with alcohol.”

The minimum pricing plan has been put on hold while the legal case remains in the courts, and Scottish government officials say implementation could be delayed for several years as a result.

Links: The Guardian | Scotch Whisky Association