Olly Wehring, Managing Editor of the drinks industry’s online news service, Just Drinks, has sent out a newsflash celebrating the sector’s victory over the Scottish Government at the European Court of Justice.
The newsflash says: ‘Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol should only be permitted in European countries if all other measures cannot deal with the issue of public health, according to the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice.’
This is, in reality, a victory for the major drinks multi-national Diageo whose very deep pockets filled by consumers allow it to pursue litigation to a level no one else can approach – and to further its own, often questionable, interests in so doing.
Diageo has now persistently and insistently lobbied, threatened to sue the Scottish and UK Governments and has been instrumental in this suing of the UK Government in its legitimate concern to curb the health, social and economic costs of binge drinking and addiction in vulnerable people by imposing a minimum price on alcohol.
Amongst the stunts involved in this campaign, the long Diageo-dominated Scotch Whisky Association [SWA] itself launched a major European and a domestic legal challenge to Scotland’s plans for minimum pricing -with a complaint to the unelected European Commission and a petition for Judicial Review filed at Edinburgh’s Court of Session.
These exercises were backed by two other trade bodies – the European Spirits Organisation and the European Wine Committee.
The case the SWA put forward for Judicial Review was initially rejected by judge Lord Doherty at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 2013.
This gig was no more than strategic stunting since Scotch whisky, however relatively cheap the variety, was never near facing any impact from the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing of alcohol. It is already priced well above the proposed minumum level.
Why exercised Diageo was nothing to do with whisky but everything to do with protecting its highly profitable alcopops market.
These are the relatively cheap sweet soft drinks pre-mixed with spirits, often vodka based – a cheap spirit to produce. They are targeted on the teenage and youth market as an ‘introductory’ alcoholic drink and became part of the binge drinking culture.
This and the ‘special offer’ supermarket culture in beers, were the targets of government concern withe the negative impact of binge drinking on individual health, society and the economy; and what led to the initiative to put a minimum price on alcohol.
This Scottish Government initiative had the unequivocal backing of a wide spectrum of health professionals, the police and addiction recovery groups. It was also copied by the UK Government.
Diageo vigorously fought both and has now seen a judgment in its favour at the European Court of Justice. This follows an appeal against Lord Doherty’s Judicial Review opinion which saw the case was referred to the European court in Luxembourg in 2014 – from which today’s, 3rd September 2015, ruling has emerged.
This is not a victory for individual freedom. It is a victory against the interests of the vulnerable and in the interests of predatory big business – a victory only made possible by the very big money of that big business force.
But this is only an initial ruling and there are caveats in it.
In saying that the imposition of a minimum price of alcohol risks infringing EU rules on free trade, the court said that this measure [sorry] would only be legal if it could be shown that no other strategy – like raising taxes – could deliver the intended public health benefits.
The specific words of the initial ruling are: ‘A Member State can choose rules imposing a minimum retail price of alcoholic beverages, which restricts trade within the European Union and distorts competition, rather than increased taxation of those products, only on condition that it shows that the measure chosen presents additional advantages or fewer disadvantages by comparison with the alternative measure.’
With good reason, the Scottish Government is said to take comfort in this since it has not flatly outlawed minimum pricing – but has left it open to further expensive legal arguments from both combatants.