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Alcohol Pricing Bill up for stage 1 debate

14 March 2012

The Scottish Government's Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) Bill will be debated at stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament today.

The controversial measure, which was supported in principle last week by a majority of the Parliament's Health & Sport Committee, now also has the backing of the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but Labour remains sceptical.

In its report the committee described as "compelling and overwhelming" the evidence that the bill would lead to a reduction in harmful drinkers’ consumption with a beneficial impact on public health, crime, public services, productivity and the economy. A minority remained sceptical about the efficacy of minimum pricing, and believed a universal approach might penalise moderate drinkers and those in lower income groups.

Also still unresolved is the question of the bill's compatibility with European Union law. The drinks industry has said it will bring a challenge, and the Law Society of Scotland today pointed out again that the final decision could still rest with the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Jim McLean, convener of the Society's Competition Law Committee said: "While we would welcome any initiative that aims to improve the nation's health and encourages the sensible retailing and consumption of alcohol, the legislation proposing the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol does require to be scrutinised to ensure that it complies with EU Treaty provisions on the free movement of goods and duty directives.

"The Scottish Government is not legally bound to notify the European Commission of its intention to introduce such a measure. However, if it did so, this would eliminate the distraction of procedure and allow the Commission to focus on the substantive issues of minimum unit pricing when deciding on whether or not to challenge it.

"The Court of Justice of the European Union could take the view that introducing a minimum unit price in Scotland would disrupt cross border trade to a greater extent than really necessary to achieve the Scottish Government's legitimate health objective. Or it could conclude that a minimum unit price would target a particular pattern of consumption that was a particular problem and that there was sufficient evidence that the policy would achieve the Scottish Government's objectives, to an extent that apparently simpler measures, such as an increase in duty or a ban on below-cost retailing, could not."

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