Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Minimum Alcohol Pricing in Scotland 3: A Decision

I have blogged about minimum pricing before; both on its possible illegality, and on the SWA’s approach. Now a Scottish court has heldthat there is no problem in law with the proposals, and so it would appear minimum pricing will become a reality. (Except that other EU states are challenging the measure at a higher level, as reported here).

I don’t propose to go through all the aspects of the judgment, which is here, at any length. I am more interested in the free movement of goods (FMG) issue, which I discussed before. This was, as I understand, the main argument of the SWA. Other arguments, including ones based on the Scotland/England Acts of Union hardly passed a smell-test.

On the FMG point, it was held that the Scottish measure did impinge on free movement, but was justified on the basis of the protection of the life and health of humans (Art 36 TFEU). This is a treaty-enshrined basis that allows derogation from strict free movement of goods. Lord Doherty held that there was a legitimate aim, and that the measure was proportionate to that aim.

[55] There is overwhelming evidence of grave health, social, economic and public order consequences caused in Scotland as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Such consumption by harmful and hazardous drinkers is particularly concerning, and is harmful to those drinkers and to others. On the basis of the material placed before me I am in no doubt that reduction of alcohol consumption generally, and reduction of consumption by hazardous and harmful drinkers in particular, are both legitimate aims in terms of Article 36.
[64] If … alternative measures would be just as effective as minimum pricing in achieving the legitimate aims being pursued, the contention that they would be less of an obstacle to freedom of movement of goods would appear, at least prima facie, to be logical and have force…
[73] The petitioners [argue] that excise duty on alcohol can be increased as much as is necessary to raise the prices of cheaper products to desired levels. Such an approach would not affect, or target, drinkers of cheaper products only: but it could subject them to price increases of at least the same order as under minimum pricing. … In those circumstances [an excise duty] would be no less effective in reducing the consumption of cheap alcohol or the consumption of alcohol by hazardous and harmful drinkers.
[77] That argument would have been more persuasive if the legitimate aims of the measures had been to reduce consumption, including consumption by hazardous and harmful drinkers, to the maximum extent possible regardless of possible economic or social consequences. However, those are not the aims of the measures. Rather, the relevant aims are [ [54][striking] a reasonable balance between, on the one hand, public health and social benefits, and, on the other, intervention in the market … The Parliament and the Ministers recognised that many people have "a balanced, positive and enjoyable relationship with alcohol": such drinkers are not the target of the measures. The major problem is excessive consumption of cheap alcohol. The measures seek to address this by increasing the price of such alcohol.]

This is proportionality doing what proportionality does worst. Proportionality, as a concept, is primarily found in EU law. If measure is tied to a legitimate aim, and goes no further than necessary to achieve that aim, it is proportionate. On this occasion, that has the net result of blowing an FMG argument out the water.

But note the judicial sleight of hand. We have defined the aim of the measure such that there is much less scope for an alternative, less-FMG-infringing measure. An excise duty would raise all prices, and that is not the aim. The aim is to increase prices of cheaper products only. But it is precisely the increase at the lower end that means there is an FMG issue – a foreign drinks company now can’t compete on pricing. By defining the aim of the measure with such tight reference to the measure made the proportionality hurdle a much lower one for the Scottish Ministers to clear.

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