After 5 years of judicial process, the Supreme Court has confirmed that alcohol in Scotland must not be sold below a minimum price.  The decision has been heralded as “Scotland’s biggest public health breakthrough since the ban on smoking in public places”.

The Scottish Government introduced the legislation in 2012 preventing alcohol being sold for less than 50p per unit.

The Scottish Whisky Association challenged the minimum pricing requirements on the grounds that it breached European Union law on the free movement of goods and was outwith the powers of the Scottish Government.  The Association argues that there were other methods, such as general taxation, which could be used instead to target the impacts of the availability of lower cost alcohol.

The Inner House of the Court of Session dismissed the application, supporting the Scottish Government’s position that minimum pricing was required to tackle Scotland’s alcohol-related health issues.

The court advised that “ it is primarily for the state to determine the level of protection which it wishes to afford to its citizens’ life and health and the means by which that level can be achieved”. Taxation was not a realistic option: that option could only be led by the UK Government.

The Scottish Whisky Association appealed the decision. The appeal focused on whether a different measure or system, rather than minimum pricing per unit of alcohol, was capable of meeting the agreed aims of the legislation.

In dismissing the appeal, the Supreme Court considered that taxation, or a social responsibility levy on retailers of alcohol, “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.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that minimum pricing would be “experimental” and the impacts on the sale of certain types of alcohol products are “uncertain”. A “significant factor” for the Court was the requirement for a review of the pricing system after 5 years and the automatic expiry of minimum pricing after 6 years unless the Scottish Government provided otherwise in the 5 year period.

In practical terms, you may want to stock up on your bottles in time for Christmas: once the Order is in force a 70cl bottle of spirits with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 40% will retail at a minimum of £14 and a 75cl bottle of wine with an ABV of 12% would cost at least £4.50.