EC voice opposition to Scotland's alcohol price plan

Rows of bottle on supermarket shelf Scottish ministers say minimum pricing on alcohol is necessary

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Scotland's plans for minimum pricing on alcohol are a disproportionate response to the country's drink problems, the European Commission has said.

It believed the move could restrict imports of foreign alcohol.

The Scottish Parliament passed the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act) 2012 that will set a minimum unit price of alcohol at 50p.

The country's Health Secretary Alex Neil said the move would save lives and cut the harm caused by alcohol misuse.

The government has until 27 December to respond to the EC's legal directive on the matter.

Start Quote

The measure [Scotland's minimum alcohol pricing] at issue raises doubts as to its compatibility with the principle of proportionality”

End Quote Catherine Day EC general secretary

Mr Neil said ministers were confident that they could demonstrate that minimum pricing was justified "on the basis of public health and social grounds".

The view from the commission came as ministers at Westminster proposed a minimum price of 45p a unit for the sale of alcohol in England and Wales.

Although the act in Scotland received Royal Assent in June it is not yet in force due to the EC's concerns and a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association and wine-producing European Union nations such as France, Italy and Spain.

They believe the legislation breaches EU laws on free trade.

The EC said it recognised that Scotland had one of the fastest-growing rates of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in the world, but its view was that minimum pricing was a "disproportionate" response.

'Harmful drinkers'

The commission would prefer a wholesale increase in all alcohol prices through raising taxes - something which is outside Holyrood's control - or unspecified targeted measures in the specific Scottish regions where alcohol abuse is a problem.

EC general secretary Catherine Day said: "The commission is fully aware of the importance of reduction of alcohol consumption among the population as a whole, and in particular among the harmful drinkers.

"The commission further acknowledges that the measure proposed is within member states' competence and, from a public health point of view, within the scope of the goals and objectives of the EU strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol-related harm.

"However, the measure at issue raises doubts as to its compatibility with the principle of proportionality."

Woman drinking wine Wine and whisky producers have disputed the drink price plan

Ms Day said an "increase of excise duty appears to be a better option to reach the goals sought" and suggested "other additional measures which the Scottish government could adopt".

Scottish minister Mr Neil said his government's alcohol price plan had been agreed by MSPs and was backed by expert opinion.

He added: "The European Commission are in favour of addressing alcohol abuse and have asked us to consider their points, which we are doing.

"This is not unexpected and within the usual procedures for notification under the technical standards directive.

"We are confident that we can demonstrate that minimum pricing is justified on the basis of public health and social grounds, and will continue to press the case for minimum pricing in the strongest possible terms.

"We will respond to the EC by the deadline of December 27."

Westminster plan

Mr Neil also welcomed the UK government's commitment to consult on the minimum pricing of alcohol.

The Home Office has launched a 10-week consultation on the plan for a minimum 45p per unit of alcohol, arguing it would help reduce the levels of ill-health and crime related to drink.

It is also considering banning multi-buy promotions, such as two-for-the-price-of-one.

Its 45p proposal is 5p higher than the figure suggested by ministers in March.

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