Belfast Telegraph

Court of Session starts hearing alcohol price plan legal challenge

Judges hearing a legal challenge to the Scottish Government's plan for a minimum alcohol price have been told of changes to drinking trends and alcohol-related death rates in the years since the legislation was passed at Holyrood.

Scotland's highest civil court heard the figures were declining in 2012 but a subsequent "upturn" has resulted in a flattening-out of those downward trends.

Judges were told it is too early to say if that marks the start of a longer-term trend but heard ministers fear it could be.

The points were aired at the Court of Session in Edinburgh as it considers an earlier opinion from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on legislation to introduce a minimum unit price of 50p in Scotland.

MSPs backed the move in 2012 but the measure has not yet been introduced because the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and other European wine and spirits producers took legal action, arguing the move would breach European law.

Scottish judge Lord Doherty initially rejected the challenge in 2013 but it was later referred to the ECJ after an appeal hearing.

In December last year, the ECJ ruled the plan would breach European Union law if alternative tax measures could be introduced, and it referred the case back to the Edinburgh court.

As the latest round of hearings got under way on Tuesday, Gerry Moynihan QC, representing Scottish ministers, told the court the proceedings were "unique".

In his early submissions to the court, he urged the Lord President Lord Carloway, sitting with Lords Menzies and Brodie, to consider fresh figures put forward by his side on drink consumption, morbidity and mortality.

He said the statistics previously before the court stemmed from 2012 and were now "out of date".

The lawyer said: "At that stage the trend in consumption was down, a declining rate of consumption, and (there was) also a declining rate of mortality and morbidity."

He went on: "Since we were last before your lordships the data has shown that the trend has now flattened.

"There is no longer a decline in consumption or morbidity. Consumption has taken a turn up, as has morbidity ... The concern the government has is that it is, indeed, a trend."

Mr Moynihan argued the recession had an impact on people's drinking habits but spending began to rise when that ended "with an impact again on mortality".

He argued that by 2014, data pointed to an "upturn" in mortality rates.

Reading from a study, the QC said: "Mortality rates have not declined since 2012 for either men or women. However, it's too early to say if this marks the start of a long-term change in trend."

Aidan O'Neill QC, for the SWA, said the other side was "rehashing" submissions already made at an earlier stage in proceedings and argued they were not addressing the points raised by the European court.

The ECJ concluded a tax rise on alcoholic drinks ''is liable to be less restrictive of trade'' than minimum pricing.

It said it would be for the Court of Session to make a final decision after determining whether any alternative measure could equal the stated public health benefit while being less restrictive of trade.

Meanwhile, Alcohol Focus Scotland published figures showing shoppers can buy the weekly limit of 14 units of alcohol for just £2.52.

Research at supermarket and off-licences in Edinburgh and Glasgow found cider on sale at 18p per unit, vodka at 36p per unit, lager at 26p per unit and wine at 32p per unit.

Chief executive Alison Douglas said: "The more affordable alcohol is, the more we drink and this means more alcohol-related hospital admissions, crime and deaths.

"A 50p minimum unit price is the most effective way to raise the price of the cheapest, strongest drinks which cause the most harm in Scotland."

The hearing continues.