If the SWA appeal is dismissed, Scotland could become the first country in the world to establish a minimum price for alcohol – with ministers saying it would become law “as quickly as is practicable”, possibly early next year.
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.
Bottle of whisky
Strength 40% ABV
Units of alcohol 28
Bottle of Vodka
Strength 37.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 26.25
Bottle of White wine
Strength 11.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 8.625
Bottle of red wine
Strength 12.5% ABV
Units of alcohol 9.375
Bottle of cider (normal strength)
Strength 5% ABV
Volume 1 litre
Units of alcohol 5
Four cans of lager
Strength 4% ABV
Volume (4×440 ml) 1.76 litres
Units of alcohol 7.04
Big bottle of alcopops
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.
Scotland’s Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “Alcohol is 60% more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980 and alcohol misuse costs Scotland £3.6bn each year – £900 for every adult.
“There is strong evidence that tackling price helps reduce consumption and related harm.”
During a two-day hearing at the Supreme Court in July, the QC for the Scotch Whisky Association said the case could set a far-reaching precedent and have an impact on international trade.
He said the nub of the SWA argument was “why not tax?”.
The lawyer said that to discriminate against products because they are cheap went against “the absolute fundamentals of the free market”.
Timeline: Minimum pricing for alcohol
The latest phase of the five-year legal battle will be decided in London, having already passed 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.