Scotch whisky industry attacks minimum price plans as ‘blunt instrument’

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The Scotch whisky industry has attacked proposals to implement a 50p minimum price for alcohol in Scotland as a “blunt instrument” that breaches EU law.

Aidan O’Neill QC, acting for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), told the supreme court in London far more effort should be put into tackling the poverty that played a significant part in the high number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland.

Backed by the drinks body spiritsEUROPE and the European wine group CEEV, the SWA had taken the Scottish government to the supreme court to challenge plans to set a minimum unit price for all alcoholic drinks in Scotland of 50p per unit, a measure ministers and doctors say will help cut abuse and addiction.

“A general measure is too much of a blunt instrument to be justifiable as a matter of health and protection of life of humans. There are other ways,” he said. “If poorer people are dying more than rich people, maybe we should deal with poverty.”

The hearing is the latest stage in a long-running legal battle by the drinks industry against minimum pricing, which was passed by the Scottish parliament in 2012, after NHS figures showed up to 3,000 people a year died in Scotland from alcohol-related illnesses.

Health campaigners are urging the UK government to reevaluate minimum pricing for England and Wales, after the latest study found that 63,000 people in England would die from alcohol-related liver diseases over the next five years.

In his opening statement in a two-day hearing on Monday, O’Neill told seven supreme court judges that the European court of justice had been clear that implementing a minimum price restricted free trade and was anti-competitive, breaching EU law.

There was a “quiverful” of other taxation measures or excise reforms that would be fairer and legal under EU law, and also mean that the extra taxes could be spent directly on health and anti-poverty measures.

O’Neill said the Scottish government’s policy would mean all the extra income from minimum pricing would stay in the pockets of the retailers and producers, rather than go on public spending, with the price of the cheapest bottles of whisky and vodka rising to £14 each.

A minimum price of 50p would also fail to increase the costs of Buckfast, the alcoholic tonic wine most closely linked to youth unrest and street violence in deprived areas of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Glasgow, O’Neill said.

O’Neill told the court it ignored “the problem of ‘Buckfast alley’. It is not caught by minimum unit pricing because it’s already above 50p. That is the drink of choice of the ned [delinquent or hooligan], so if that’s the point of minimum pricing then it’s missing it altogether.

“If you do have an issue with the 1% [who are harmful drinkers], then have a targeted approach which deals with the social deprivation, which deals with the geographical specificity, which deals with the specifics of consumption,” he said earlier.

James Wolffe, QC, Scotland’s lord advocate, said the Scottish government’s strategy was based on expert evidence from the University of Sheffield. Its health benefits would be great enough to justify interfering in free trade, something the European court had accepted could be justified.

Despite O’Neill’s arguments against it, minimum unit pricing was clearly targeted because it focused on excessive consumption of cheap drink, Wolffe said, which was disproportionately bought by hazardous drinkers. The Scottish policy was also time-limited: it would be reviewed after five years and then lapse after six years unless the Scottish parliament voted to reintroduce it.

There was a clear link between the sales of cheap vodka and alcohol abuse: Scottish drinkers bought 2.4 times as much vodka that cost less than 50p per unit than in England and Wales.

“It effectively targets those who will benefit most those who will benefit from a reduction, namely hazardous and harmful drinkers,” Wolffe said. “There is a strong evidence base that it will be an effective intervention.”

Lord Reed, one of Scottish judges sitting on the case, indicated support for the argument that the social damage caused by harmful drinking was far more severe in poorest areas of Scotland.

“You don’t have to sit very long in a Scottish criminal court to realise that the social problems sitting with alcohol aren’t so much to do with well-off people overloading on burgundy from Waitrose,” Reed said.

“It’s people buying very high strength cider and beer and sometimes wine in poorer areas, particularly the west of Scotland, and getting very, very drunk, very cheaply, and then causing all havoc in family life, behaviour on the streets and so forth.”

O’Neill said the close link between poverty and alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisation showed that deprivation and ill-health were significant factors which were likely to be root causes.

There was also excessive drinking amongthe better off, but those affluent drinkers were able to afford more expensive drinks and were less likely to be affected by minimum pricing. If the objective of the policy was to tackle all harmful drinking, then across-the-board changes in tax or excise rates would be far more effective.

The UK government could decide to harmonise the five different types of excise duty applied to different types of alcohol drinks, or introduce taxes based directly on the alcoholic strength of the drink – a policy already followed in part by the Treasury.

The seven justices – court president Lord Neuberger sitting with Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge – are expected to take time to consider their decision and will give their judgment at a later date.