THE Scottish Parliament’s law on a minimum unit price for alcohol is “a blunt instrument” and the Scottish Government should be attacking problem drinking in other ways.

That was the challenge made in the UK’s highest court yesterday by a lawyer acting for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), five years after the law on minimum unit pricing was passed at Holyrood.

Aidan O’Neill QC told the Supreme Court in London there were a variety of better ways to achieve the Scottish Government’s aim.

Loading article content

The SWA is arguing during a two-day hearing in London that minimum unit price is “disproportionate” and illegal under European law.

O’Neill told seven justices: “A general measure is too much of a blunt instrument to be justifiable as a matter of health and protection of life of humans.

“It is a political decision that pricing should be used to decrease alcohol consumption and improve public health.

“We point out that there are a whole number of ways in which pricing can be used legitimately in accordance with EU law to achieve those aims.”

O’Neill said that, in principle, raising excise duty might be one way of increasing the price and achieving the same health benefits.

He 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.

The QC also said a minimum price of 50p would also fail to increase the cost of Buckfast, the alcoholic tonic wine in deprived areas of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Glasgow. O’Neill told the court it ignored “the problem of ‘Buckfast alley”. He added: “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 one per cent [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.”

Following a series of legal challenges, the Supreme Court has to decide whether the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 is incompatible with European Union law and therefore unlawful under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act.

Scottish Ministers have prepared a draft order specifying a minimum price per unit of 50p, but neither the 2012 Act nor the order has been brought into force pending the legal proceedings.

The SWA’s appeal is being opposed by the Lord Advocate, for the Scottish Government. James Wolffe QC said the Government’s strategy was based on expert evidence from the University of Sheffield and that its health benefits would be great enough to justify interfering in free trade, something the European Court had accepted.

The Scottish policy is also time-limited: it will be reviewed after five years and then lapse after six years unless the Scottish Parliament votes to reintroduce it.

“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 the 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.”

The hearing continues today. 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.