I've written about various aspects of minimum pricing for alcohol many times before, including the Scottish Parliament's passing of a law enacting it in Scotland. Specifically, three years ago I wrote "Drink lands Scotland in court", after the Scottish Whisky Association made a formal complaint about the minimum pricing proposals to the European Commission. Following this battle has been rather like watching an unavoidable car crash in slow motion, with an entirely unsurprising result
The European Court of Justice advocate general Yves Bot said the move risked infringing EU rules on free trade, explaining that could only be legal if it could be shown no other mechanism could deliver the desired public health benefits, such as taxation. This latter point, which allows that the policy could be legal if no other measures can achieve its declared aims, means that this is not the final word. The SNP government is pinning its hopes on this, supported by Tennent Caledonian, renowned for their utterly mediocre beers; their managing director said: "Minimum pricing is an important step in addressing the very specific but damaging problem of strong, cheap alcohol. It would be a lost opportunity for Scotland if it were not introduced."
In reality, it would be a lost opportunity for Tennent Caledonian, whose profits would be boosted by a reduction in the availability of cheaper booze. Two thoughts occur to me: if Tennent Caledonian are genuinely concerned about the health risks of booze, why are they in the business at all? After all, dearer booze isn't safer in health terms. If - more realistically - they have leapt onto the health bandwagon for purely protectionist reasons, they could protect their business by brewing better beer. Of course, there's no chance that will ever happen, but I loathe their opportunistic dishonesty.
Politicians like simple proposals like this because they are cheap and give the impression of taking action while actually doing nothing about the problems they are meant to address. I also dislike the fact that it will mainly hit people without much money, and certainly won't affect the better off. The SNP government can take some solace in the fact that the statement by the advocate general is only an opinion, but it would take compelling additional evidence and arguments for the European court not to endorse it. This is a serious setback to the policy, but it's going to take some time before we hear the final word.
The Pub Curmudgeon wrote about this news from a different angle yesterday.