Minimum pricing plan for booze may never happen after Euro court ruling
Despite being announced to much fanfare earlier this month it looks like we may never see minimum pricing for alcohol in Ireland after a ruling at the European Court of Justice today.
The matter came before the court in reaction to a similar plan that was put forward by the Scottish Government.
Judges at the Luxembourg court concluded that the policy would restrict the market, which could be avoided by the introduction of an alternative tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol.
They said it was ultimately for the national court of an EU state to determine whether other measures would be as effective in achieving the desired public health benefit.
Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) officials mounted a legal challenge alongside other European wine and spirits producers after legislation to introduce minimum pricing was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012.
The case will now be referred back to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a final decision.
The SWA's legal challenge to the proposal of a minimum unit price of 50p was initially rejected by judge Lord Doherty at the Court of Session in 2013.
Following an appeal hearing, the case was referred to the ECJ last year for its opinion on six points of European law, with an interim opinion published in September.
In their ruling, judges concluded that a minimum price would constitute an obstacle to the free movement of goods, but that such a measure may be justified on health protection grounds "only if it is proportionate to the objective pursued".
The court said a fiscal measure increasing the taxation of alcoholic drinks "is liable to be less restrictive" than minimum pricing.
All of this means that the Irish Government's plan may now never see the light of day.
There was much fanfare over the proposals published by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar a fortnight ago.
With cans of beer set at €2 and wine at €8.63, the proposals sparked much debate.
The Vintners' Federation of Ireland welcomed the Court ruling today.
In a statement they said:
The VFI understands that the ECJ appreciates the objectives of the Scottish Parliament to primarily reduce the hazardous consumption of alcohol, a view and objective we would share as a major industry stakeholder in Ireland.
The ECJ has stated that the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) is only justifiable if it is demonstrated to be proportionate and would achieve what higher taxes on alcohol or other forms of taxation wouldn’t achieve.
If higher taxation on alcohol had the capability to address the alcohol related issues highlighted by the health professionals we would have few problems in Ireland. We have one of the highest levels of taxation on alcohol in Europe and it clearly does not address these issues. Taxation as a measure is impotent when some supermarkets sell below the combined VAT and excise levels on alcohol as they currently do as a loss leader.
The ECJ have referred this back to local courts, and on that basis, it is our opinion, that the Irish government should continue to introduce a MUP in Ireland, and that this remains the best method to reduce harmful drinking and not other tax measures.