Scotland politics

Finland backs Scottish minimum alcohol pricing

Finnish alcohol shop
Image caption Wines and spirits are only available at official government alcohol shops in Finland

The Finnish government is set to give its support to the Scottish government in a controversial court case over minimum pricing levels for alcohol.

BBC Scotland has learned that Finnish officials will present papers to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg this week.

The papers will back the Scottish government in a case being brought by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

The Finnish ministry of health said the issue was a "question of principle".

Legislation to bring in the Scottish government's alcohol price plan was passed by Holyrood in May 2012, but ongoing legal challenges have prevented the policy from being implemented.

The SWA has described the legislation, which is supported by health professionals and the police, as "un-targeted, misguided and illegal" and has claimed it would raise the price of a bottle of whisky.

It has taken its case to the European courts after the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled last year that minimum pricing was legal.

The Scottish government believes its reforms, which will set a 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol in a bid to cut crime and improve health, are lawful, and has urged the alcohol industry to respect the will of the Scottish parliament.

'Same side'

Ismo Tuominen, who heads up alcohol policy at the Finnish ministry of health, said: "Finland has decided to back Scotland in this court case.

"This is a question of principle. If a nation wants to have its own decisions concerning public health and concerning alcohol policy, we are at the same side of that nation."

Last year, BBC Scotland reported that five European wine-producing nations - France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria - were trying to block Scotland's plans for minimum alcohol pricing.

They claimed that the legislation breached European free trade law by discriminating against imported alcohol products.

But Ireland said at the time that its "strong view is that minimum pricing is a proportional measure."

Mr Tuominen added: "The Scottish government has been very active with all member states in the European Union. The Finnish remarks will be be published at the end of this week."

The move comes as Finland prepares to enact tough new alcohol advertising laws of its own which have drawn widespread public comment, amid uncertainty over what exactly will be affected when the new legislation comes into force on 1 January 2015.

Image caption Finland is cracking down on online alcohol advertising

Although advertising of strong alcohol such as whisky and vodka has been banned in Finland since 1977, the new rules will extend the restrictions to beer, wines, cider and other "mild" alcohol.

In future, all alcohol advertising in public places such as bus stops will be banned, and an advertising "watershed" on television will mean adverts for "mild" alcohol can only be shown after 22:00. Exceptions to the rules include sporting events, and on Baltic ferries.

For the first time, the Finns will also crack down on alcohol advertising via social media.

Mr Tuominen said: "The most interesting restriction will be banning social media advertising. This is not an easy question, but we are trying to make quite a strict line between conventional advertising, and advertising which uses peoples' conventional networks".

Finland has struggled with alcohol problems since independence in 1917, and prohibition was in effect until the 1930s.

Today, alcohol is expensive, heavily taxed and often difficult to buy. A pint of beer can cost as much as £6, with wines and spirits only available at official government alcohol shops with restricted opening times.

However the new legislation has already caused uncertainty among the Finnish public. Media stories and comments on social media suggest that while the law itself seems clear, there could be confusion about how uniformly it is enforced.

Recent stories in the press centred around a beer and whisky fair in Helsinki, where officials decreed that even using the word "whisky" in the logo was enough to fall foul of current advertising laws.

'Drinking habits'

A social media storm erupted and within a few hours #viskigate (#whiskygate) was trending locally on Twitter, as newspapers claimed - falsely - that bloggers writing about the event had been banned from using the word "whisky" in their blogs.

"I think most people can sort of understand the intent of the law, where it comes from, there's a lot of problems with alcoholism in this country" says Gillis Danielsen, a whisky aficionado who has made several whisky-tasting trips to Scotland, and was involved with his student whisky association at university.

He added: "Typically these prohibitions have been more counterproductive than helpful for sort of more reasonable drinking habits in Finland."

One of the main points of concern online is how far the government will go to stop Finns mentioning alcohol on social media. For example, whether recommending a bottle of wine they enjoyed at a restaurant is considered advertising, or free speech.

Mr Tuominen said: "According to my knowledge Finland will be the first country in Europe and maybe the world which has restrictions concerning these new kinds of [social media] advertising.

"It doesn't concern freedom of speech of private citizens, but it prohibits for example paid advertising of bloggers".

The uncertainty about new laws is also extending to a popular Scottish whisky brand.

Web users in Finland have recently been unable to access the Glenmorangie website, instead getting a message from the company which claimed it was blocked due to local laws, despite Finnish officials saying no such laws exist.

Privately, Finnish officials say they consider this "provocation" ahead of the new advertising laws to stir up controversy, even though no new restrictions would come into place for hard alcohol and Glenmorangie's website would anyway remain unaffected.

On Tuesday evening a spokesman for the distillery told BBC Scotland they were "looking into this matter" but a few hours later Glenmorangie had removed the block completely.

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