Supreme Court ruling enables Scottish Government to further tackle alcohol-related harm

Mikkel Gerken

The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruled on 15 November 2017 that under European Union law the minimum unit pricing policy is legal. This ruling ends a 5-year legal challenge and enables the Scottish Government to implement the policy. Minimum unit pricing involves setting a minimum retail price per unit of alcohol or 8 grams of pure alcohol. In Scotland, the unit price is set at £0.50 (US$ 0.65).

Based on the 2009 Scottish alcohol strategy, the legislation to introduce minimum unit pricing was first passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012. However, global alcohol producers initiated a legal challenge to block the legislation. The legal challenge resulted in referral from the Scottish Court of Session to the European Court of Justice. The European Court of Justice subsequently returned the decision to the Scottish courts, which ruled in favour of the Scottish Government’s act and the decision was referred to the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court.

Reducing alcohol-related harm through minimum price policy

The framework for preventing harm caused by alcohol in Scotland has been informed by the international evidence outlined in the WHO publications "Alcohol: No ordinary commodity, the Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, and the European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020". The need for action in the country became particularly clear in the 1990s when deaths caused by liver cirrhosis increased sharply in the Scottish population while the mortality rate was decreasing in other European countries.

The alcohol strategy developed for Scotland was modelled on the priority areas of health policy set by WHO, referred to as the “best buys”, focusing on price, availability and marketing. A minimum price policy is one of the options outlined in the "European action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol 2012–2020". Compared to increased taxes, introducing a legal minimum price per unit of alcohol may be more likely to ensure that price changes result in a desired change in the retail price, since alcohol producers and retailers can offset tax increases by not passing on the tax increase to the consumer.

In the last iteration of the Global Survey on Alcohol and Health, 5 countries in the WHO European Region (Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan) reported having some form of minimum price policy for alcohol. In addition, the Parliament of Ireland has begun consideration of a Public Health and Alcohol Bill, which includes establishing a minimum unit price, and the Government of Wales has plans to introduce minimum unit pricing.

In addition to pricing policies, the Scottish national strategy aims to reduce the harmful use of alcohol through a comprehensive approach across several policy areas and includes increased investment in treatment and care, by, for instance, establishing a national screening and brief intervention programme. Dr Niamh Fitzgerald, who was involved in the Scottish programme, recently collaborated with WHO Europe to develop training materials to assist Member States in introducing or expanding screening and brief intervention programmes in primary care.