Supreme Court judgment permits alcohol minimum unit pricing in Scotland

The Supreme Court has today delivered its unanimous judgment in the case of Scotch Whisky Association and others (Appellants) v The Lord Advocate and another (Respondents)(Scotland) [2017] UKSC 76 – on appeal from [2016] CSIH 77 – finding that it could reasonably be concluded that the system of minimum unit pricing (“MUP”) proposed by the Scottish Parliament was proportionate in the sense required by European Union law.

It described as “a critical issue” whether taxation would achieve the same objectives as MUP and, in his judgment that was agreed by the six other Supreme Court judges hearing the appeal, Lord Mance determined that:

  • “taxation would impose an unintended and unacceptable burden on sectors of the drinking population, whose drinking habits and health do not represent a significant problem in societal terms in the same way as the drinking habits and health of in particular the deprived, whose use and abuse of cheap alcohol the Scottish Parliament and Government wish to target”,
  • “in contrast, minimum alcohol pricing will much better target the really problematic drinking to which the Government’s objectives were always directed and the nature of which has become even more clearly identified by the material more recently available, particularly the University of Sheffield’s April 2016 study”,
  • “as to the general advantages and values of minimum pricing for health in relation to the benefits of free EU trade and competition, the Scottish Parliament and Government have as a matter of general policy decided to put very great weight on combatting alcohol-related mortality and hospitalisation and other forms of alcohol-related harm. That was a judgment which it was for them to make, and their right to make it militates strongly against intrusive review by a domestic court”,
  • “that minimum pricing will involve a market distortion, including of EU trade and competition, is accepted. However, I find it impossible, even if it is appropriate to undertake the exercise at all in this context, to conclude that this can or should be regarded as outweighing the health benefits which are intended by minimum pricing. In the overall context of the Scottish or, on the face of it, any other market, it appears that it will be minor, though it will hit some producers and exporters to the Scottish market more than others. Beyond that, the position is essentially unpredictable”, and
  • “submissions that the Scottish Government should have gone further to predict the unpredictable are not realistic. The system will be experimental, but that is a factor catered for by its provisions for review and “sunset” clause. It is a significant factor in favour of upholding the proposed minimum pricing régime”.

This judgment brings to an end very lengthy litigation more than five years after the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 (that made provision for MUP) received Royal Assent on 29 June 2012. It will have considerable bearing on whether MUP is similarly to be introduced in England and Wales.

A Supreme Court press summary about the judgment can be viewed here.

Petra Meier, Director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, is quoted as saying in relation to today’s judgment:  “Our research has consistently shown that minimum unit pricing would reduce alcohol-related health problems in Scotland by targeting the cheap, high strength alcohol consumed by the highest risk drinkers. Moderate drinkers would be affected to a much smaller degree. It is estimated that once it has reached its full effect, the introduction of a 50p minimum unit price in Scotland would result in 120 fewer alcohol-related deaths and 2000 fewer hospital admissions per year.”


  • It has  been announced that MUP for alcohol, likely to be fixed (subject to consultation) at 50p a unit, will come into force in Scotland on 1 May 2018. In readiness for this, a commencement Order has been laid before the Scottish Parliament to enable implementation of section 1 of the 2012 Act that will enable Scottish Ministers to specify the MUP and the relevant marking or labelling conditions for bottles and other containers of alcohol.
  • The above-mentioned consultation commenced on 1 December and runs until 26 January 2018. The consultation document can be downloaded below.
  • Suzanne Davies has commented on this subject in one of her regular articles for Pub & Bar magazine
Download article PDF: Scottish Government MUP consultation