Supreme Court backs minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland
by Phoebe French
Scotland is set to become the first country in the world with a minimum price for alcohol following a ruling by the Supreme Court which rejected an appeal by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA.)

The Scottish parliament first passed legislation which enforced minimum alcohol pricing (MUP) five years ago in 2012, however, the matter has been embroiled in court challenges ever since.

The initial plans included a minimum of 50 pence charged per unit of alcohol sold. This means that a bottle of wine could not be sold for under £4.69, a four-pack of 500ml beer cans for under £4 and a bottle of whisky for less than £14.

The European Court of Justice later confirmed, in 2015, that Scotland’s plan to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) of alcohol was illegal because it breached EU trade laws.

However, in November 2016, the Scotch Whisky Association, which has long objected to the measure, were forced to appeal once more, following a decision by the Court of Session in October 2016, which dismissed the SWA’s objections to MUP and overturned the ruling by the European Court of Justice.

In July 2017, SWA’s appeal officially began at the UK Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases.

Scottish ministers have said that a minimum price of 50 pence-per-unit would help tackle Scotland’s “unhealthy relationship with drink” by raising the price of cheap, high-strength alcohol.

In 2016, Alcohol Focus Scotland alleged that the maximum recommended weekly intake of alcohol (14 units) could be bought for just £2.52 in Scotland. It added that high-strength cider and own-brand vodka and whisky could be bought for as little as 18p per unit of alcohol.

The SWA, on the other hand, argued that MUP was illegal under EU law and that it amounted to a “trade barrier” which “is a real concern for our industry”. While it supports the Scottish government’s decision to tackle alcohol abuse, it believes that there are better alternatives available to do this.

MUP, rather than imposing a tax or a duty increase, raises the price for the cheapest alcoholic drinks, with the extra money raised going to the retailer.


Today (15/11/2017), in an unanimous judgement, seven Supreme Court judges rejected the SWA’s appeal, ruling in favour of the Scottish government.

On giving the judgement, Lord Mance said: “The 2012 Act does not breach EU law. Minimum pricing is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

In the conclusion to the case, Lord Mance said: “A critical issue is, as the Lord Ordinary (judge at the Court of Session) indicated, whether taxation would achieve the same objectives as minimum pricing.”

The judges agreed that taxation would impose a burden on alcohol “across the board” instead of targeting (as MUP does) cheap, strong alcohol, which was the intention of the Scottish government

Lord Mance said: “Taxation would impose an unintended and unacceptable burden on sectors of the drinking population, whose drinking habits and health do not represent a significant problem in societal terms in the same way as the drinking habits and health of in particular the deprived, whose use and abuse of cheap alcohol the Scottish Parliament and Government wish to target”.

Lord Mance compared the effects of taxation to those of MUP, which he said “will much better target the really problematic drinking to which the Government’s objectives were always directed and the nature of which has become even more clearly identified by the material more recently available, particularly the University of Sheffield’s April 2016 study.”