The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is appealing against the Scottish government’s policy to introduce a 50p minimum unit price (MUP) in a two-day hearing where the arguments have been finely balanced on each side.
The decision on whether to allow the proposal has widespread implications not only for the Scottish trade but potentially for England too, which is likely to consider introducing similar measures on health grounds if the court finds in favour of the Scottish government.
Wales has already said it will introduce MUP within the next 12 months.
If MUP is granted, the price of the cheapest bottles of whisky and vodka in Scotland will rise to £14 each.
Backed by research
While the court has heard strong evidence of the health case for introducing a MUP from the Scottish government, backed by research by the Alcohol Research Group at Sheffield University that excessive drinking causes thousands of deaths and costs the NHS billions of pounds, the SWA says such minimum pricing is illegal under European law.
SWA chief executive Karen Betts said: “This was endorsed by the European Court of Justice in 2015 when it held that the Scottish scheme was likely to breach single market rules and distort competition when less trade-restrictive measures are available.”
Last October, an appeal by the SWA against MUP, which the Scottish government first tried to introduce in 2012, was thrown out by Scotland’s top civil court although later evidence on European law led to this latest appeal at the Supreme Court.
The SWA further argues that a MUP introduction would impact not only on jobs in the trade but on Scottish communities too.
The Scotch whisky industry is an export-focused industry – 90% of Scotch is exported to 182 markets overseas – reliant on open markets and free trade to sell successfully around the world, Betts has said.
“Minimum pricing schemes amount to non-tariff trade barriers and this is of real concern to our industry.
“Were other governments to follow the Scottish government's lead, the Scotch whisky industry – which is an important part of the Scottish economy – would be damaged and, with it, the jobs and communities that rely on the industry's continued success.”
The risk to international trade is now compounded by the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, she added.
Although encouraged by evidence showing that alcohol-related harm is on a downward trend in Scotland. the SWA says it recognises that significant challenges remain in tackling alcohol-related harm.
“The Scotch whisky industry remains committed to tackling alcohol misuse, including through the many projects and programmes we have supported over a number of years that are helping to address the problem,” Betts said.
“We have worked with organisations across Scotland including the Scottish government, Police Scotland, civil society organisations, local authorities and alcohol and drug partnerships, addressing issues from underage drinking to the impact of alcohol misuse on families.
“We remain willing to work with new partners, inside or outside government, on these or other programmes into the future.”
An argument that tackling poverty, which is said to have played its part in the high number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland, has been made at the Supreme Court hearing by the SWA’s legal team.
Scottish drinkers buy 2.4 times as much vodka that cost less than 50p per unit than in England and Wales it is claimed, an irony seeing that the appeal against MUP is being led by the SWA.
Scotland’s Lord Advocate made the case at the hearing that introducing MUP would be an effective intervention.
One of the Scottish judges sitting on the case was reported to have commented that being in a Scottish criminal court soon made one aware that social problems with alcohol, mainly stemmed from poorer people getting drunk on cheap drink very quickly.
Although this could be interpreted as being in favour of the Scottish Government’s argument in favour of minimum pricing, it could equally be seen to be favourable to the SWA’s case that tackling poverty should be the main aim.
Such is the finely balanced complexity of the arguments that the Supreme Court has to rule on. And it has to decide on whether European law has been breached.
A decision is not expected until a later date.