Scotland politics

Minimum alcohol pricing: Scottish drink curbs 'perfectly legal'

Opinions of European Union member states on Scottish government plans for minimum alcohol pricing have been released to the BBC. Five countries are trying to block the plans.

Scottish government response

Scotland's Health Secretary Alex Neil has insisted that minimum pricing is legal, saying the policy has been approved by the only court in Europe to examine it.

Media captionMr Neil cited examples from North America where minimum pricing had been introduced

"The Court of Session in the dispute between the Scottish government and the Scotch Whisky Association resoundingly ruled in our favour," he said.

"It's perfectly legal within European rules to introduce minimum unit pricing. So the legal advice these other countries have do not accord with what the court, the only court in Europe, has actually said."

Mr Neil said Lord Doherty in his judgment has "decided under the rules of the European Union that the measure is perfectly proportional and that's the key issue. If it is proportional to deal with the problem".

And he cited examples from North America where minimum pricing had been introduced without a challenge under trading rules.

"Canada has had minimum pricing for years in most of its provinces. There are five states in America with minimum unit pricing. None of that breaches World Trade Organisation rules, so why should Scotland be any different?"

The minister denied that European wine and spirits producers would be unfairly affected.

"It's not barriers to trade because we're treating everybody the same way. No matter what the product is there will be minimum unit pricing... we're proposing 50p per unit of alcohol... so we're not discriminating for or against anyone."

Cultural issue

He insisted that premier producers would not be hit hard.

"We've had the evidence now from Sheffield University and indeed from Canada where there have been four studies on the impact of minimum unit pricing including looking at the proposals in Scotland.

"What minimum unit pricing does, and you can't do this through taxation, it targets the problem drink and the problem drinkers. And the problem drink is cheap booze, cheap vodka, cheap cider, these are the drinks that are causing the problem and that's where the impact of minimum unit pricing will be.

"It won't be on deluxe whisky or a good wine from France."

Asked why Northern European countries appeared to have bigger problems with booze that those in the south, despite having higher prices, Mr Neil insisted that it was "a cultural issue" but price would have an effect on consumption.

"This is not just confined to Scotland but Scotland is leading the way, not just in the UK but across Europe, because we recognise that minimum unit pricing is by far most effective way to deal with our drink problem.

"We've never said that price is all that it's about. We've got 40 different measures to deal with the alcohol problem in Scotland.

"But in Scotland we do know we've had the cheapest regime for alcohol ever... the low pricing of alcohol relative to income - it's the lowest it's every been - is a major cause of the problem that we're having with the booze in Scotland."

The health secretary said the policy was vital because "the abuse of alcohol in Scotland is costing the Scottish economy over £3bn a year but more importantly it's costing lives".

He added: "The abuse particularly of cheap drinks, like cheap vodka, cheap cider, is doing enormous damage particularly to our young people who are getting boozed up, tanked up on these cheap drinks and they're doing themselves enormous damage both health-wise and ending up sometimes in a life of crime."

As for the legality, Mr Neil sounded bullish: "We're absolutely, 110% confident the legality of minimum unit pricing under European rules is entirely legitimate and the Court of Session of Scotland, one of the oldest and best courts in Europe agrees with us."

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