EU legal opinion does not rule out minimum alcohol price - Nicola Sturgeon

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A new legal ruling on minimum pricing for alcohol does not rule out the introduction of the controversial policy, Scotland's First Minister has insisted.

Nicola Sturgeon said the opinion, from European Court of Justice advocate general Yves Bot, set out the tests that would have to be met before minimum unit pricing (MUP) could be brought in.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which is challenging the Scottish Government's plans for a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol, insisted Mr Bot's opinion "encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal".

Mr Bot said a European Union (EU) member state could only introduce such a policy if it demonstrates more advantages or fewer disadvantages than other alternatives - such as an increase in taxes.

He said the fact that increased taxation "is capable of procuring additional advantages by contributing to the general objective of combating alcohol abuse does not justify discarding that measure in favour of the MUP measure".

The Scottish Government, however, does not have the power to raise taxes on alcohol, with this ability reserved to Westminster.

Holyrood passed legislation to introduce minimum pricing in 2012 but the policy stalled after the SWA and other European wine and spirits producers mounted a legal challenge, arguing that minimum pricing would breach European law.

The legal bid was initially rejected by judge Lord Doherty at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 2013.

Following an appeal hearing, the case was referred to the Luxembourg court last year for its opinion on six points of European law, resulting in the publication of the new opinion.

European Court judges will now consider the matter and give their ruling later this year or early next year, with the case then going back to the Court of Session for a final decision.

Mr Bot said that, in his opinion, the policy of minimum pricing "meets the objective of combating alcohol abuse in a consistent and systematic manner".

He added: "The question that arises is whether the objective of protecting public health pursued by the Scottish authorities could not be attained in a less restrictive and equally effective manner by a fiscal measure.

"In other words, would a higher tax on alcoholic beverages enable the same objective to be attained as rules imposing a minimum price, while being less restrictive of trade?"

Mr Bot said it "is for those responsible for the drafting of those rules to show that increased taxation is not capable of meeting that targeted objective".

Ms Sturgeon said: "We welcome this opinion, in which the advocate general confirms that minimum unit pricing is not precluded by EU law, but sets out tests that the national court has to apply.

"Importantly, this initial opinion indicates it will be for the domestic courts to take a final decision on minimum unit pricing.

"The advocate general finds that the policy can be implemented if it is shown to be the most effective public-health measure available.

"As such, the legal process is ongoing and we await a final response from the European Court of Justice before the case returns to the Scottish courts."

She added: "While we must await the final outcome of this legal process, the Scottish Government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.

"In recent weeks statistics have shown that alcohol-related deaths are rising again and that consumption may be rising again after a period of decline.

"We believe minimum unit pricing would save hundreds of lives in coming years and we will continue to vigorously make the case for this policy."

SWA chief executive David Frost said: "The opinion encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal when there are less trade-restrictive measures available.

"We await the Court of Justice's final ruling.

 "It remains important to address alcohol misuse with a range of other measures of proven effectiveness.

"We will continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on this.

"There is a long-term trend of falling alcohol-related deaths and harms in Scotland which suggests that measures in place are working."