The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland can set a minimum price for alcohol, rejecting a challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
Legislation was approved by the Scottish Parliament five years ago but has been tied up in court challenges.
In a unanimous judgment, seven Supreme Court judges said the legislation did not breach European Union law.
The judges ruled the measure was a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
Ministers said a 50p-per-unit minimum would help tackle Scotland’s “unhealthy relationship with drink” by raising the price of cheap, high-strength alcohol.
The whisky association had claimed the move was a “restriction on trade” and there were more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse.
After the Supreme Court verdict, ministers are expected to make Scotland the first country in the world to establish a minimum price for alcohol, possibly early next year.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Absolutely delighted that minimum pricing has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
“This has been a long road – and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics – but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health.”
The Scotch Whisky Association said it accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling.
How does minimum pricing work?
The Scottish government’s aim is to reduce the amount that problem drinkers consume simply by raising the price of the strongest, cheapest alcohol.
The move is not a tax or duty increase. It is a price hike for the cheapest drink, with any extra cash going to the retailer.
Last year, Alcohol Focus Scotland claimed the maximum recommended weekly intake of alcohol (14 units) could be bought for just £2.52.
It said super-strength cider and own-brand vodka and whisky could be purchased for as little as 18p per unit of alcohol.
The 50p-per-unit minimum outlined by the legislation would raise the price of the cheapest bottle of red wine (9.4 units of alcohol) to £4.70, a four-pack of 500ml cans of 4% lager would cost at least £4 and a 70cl bottle of whisky could not be sold for less than £14.
for a standard bottle
Strength 40% ABV
Units of alcohol 28
for a standard bottle
Strength 37.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 26.25
for a bottle
Strength 11.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 8.625
Bottle of red wine
Strength 12.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 9.375
for a bottle of cider (normal strength)
Strength 5% ABV
Volume 1 litre
Units of alcohol 5
for four cans of lager
Strength 4% ABV
Volume (4×440 ml) 1.76 litres
Units of alcohol 7.04
for a big bottle
Strength 4% ABV
Units of alcohol 2.8
Off-sales and supermarkets
Minimum pricing will not raise the prices of all alcoholic drinks because many are already above the threshold.
Pubs and bars are unlikely to be affected as they usually charge much more than 50p per unit.
The aim is to hit consumption of strong alcohol which is sold at low prices.
The new laws would be “experimental” and expire after six years unless renewed.
The judges at the Supreme Court rejected the Scotch Whisky Association’s claim that an excise duty or tax would be an equally effective way of achieving the government’s objectives.
Their judgment said minimum pricing targeted “the health hazards of cheap alcohol and the groups most affected in a way that an increase in excise or VAT does not”.
The judges said a tax would increase prices “across the board” and not just the cheap, strong alcohol which is the focus of the legislation.
They also agreed that minimum pricing was “easier to understand and simpler to enforce”.
Minimum pricing would not allow retailers to “absorb” the cost in the way a duty rise would, they said.
What has the reaction been to the verdict?
Scotland’s health minister Shona Robison said: “This is a historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol.
“In a ruling of global significance, the UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy.”
Scotch Whisky Association chief executive Karen Betts said: “We will now look to the Scottish and UK governments to support the industry against the negative effects of trade barriers being raised in overseas markets that discriminate against Scotch Whisky as a consequence of minimum pricing, and to argue for fair competition on our behalf.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs said the Scottish government would have his party’s support on implementing the legislation.
He said: “We look forward to seeing whether or not minimum pricing can make any impact on Scotland’s complex and damaging relationship with alcohol.”
Dr Peter Bennie, chair of the British Medical Association Scotland, said: “As doctors we see every day the severe harms caused by alcohol misuse and the damage it causes to individuals and their families.
“There are no easy solutions, but minimum unit pricing can make a significant contribution to reducing these harms and saving lives.”
Cancer Research UK’s cancer prevention expert Linda Bauld said: “Alcohol is linked to seven types of cancer including breast and bowel cancer, and the more you drink the greater your risk of cancer.
“It’s a shame expensive legal action has delayed this welcome measure.”
Timeline: Minimum pricing for alcohol
The Supreme Court ruling was the final stage of a five-year legal battle, with the cases already passing through courts in Edinburgh and Luxembourg. After an initial challenge at the Court of Session failed in 2013, the SWA appealed to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The European court said the legislation might break EU law if other tax options would prove as effective, but said it was “ultimately for the national court to determine” whether they did.
The Scottish court subsequently backed the measures for a second time, ruling that tax measures “would be less effective than minimum pricing”.
However, in December 2016 the Court of Session judges then allowed the SWA to go to the Supreme Court to challenge their ruling.