Judges at Scotland’s highest civil court have rejected an appeal against plans to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol.
The Court of Session in Edinburgh refused the case, which had been brought by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others, saying that “the grounds submitted in the appeal were not well founded”.
They made their final ruling after considering whether the infringement of European trade laws that minimum pricing would bring are justified by the benefits to public health – and if this could be achieved by any other means.
MSPs passed legislation at Holyrood in 2012 to bring in minimum pricing, which would initially be set at 50p per unit.
But implementation of the policy stalled after the SWA and other European wine and spirits producers took legal action, arguing minimum pricing would breach European law.
The judges said the previous Court of Session ruling “correctly concluded that whatever arguments may be deployed against it, there was evidence which demonstrated that the alternative of increased tax, with or without a prohibition on below cost sales, would be less effective than minimum pricing”.
SWA chief executive David Frost said the organisation will now consult its members before deciding on any further action, which could see the case taken to the UK Supreme Court.
Holyrood’s public health minister Aileen Campbell hailed the “landmark” verdict from the Court of Session.
She said: “I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgment in our favour from 2013. This follows the opinion of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that it was for our domestic courts to make a final judgment on the scheme.
“The Scotch Whisky Association represents some of Scotland’s finest whisky brands, and while they were entitled to raise this action, they and the wider drinks industry must now respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament and the ruling of the Court of Session and enable this life-saving measure to be introduced.
“This policy was passed by the Scottish Parliament unopposed more than four years ago.
“In that time, the democratic will of our national Parliament has been thwarted by this ongoing legal challenge, while many people in Scotland have continued to die from the effects of alcohol misuse.
“Today’s ruling is a landmark one, and should mark the end of the legal process, allowing this important policy to finally be brought forward.”
The Scottish Government has consistently argued minimum pricing is the “most effective mechanism” for tackling alcohol misuse and reducing the harm it can cause.
But the SWA claimed it would be ineffective in its aims, penalise responsible drinkers and was beyond the powers of Holyrood.
Judge Lord Doherty initially rejected the challenge at the Court of Session in 2013 but it was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg the following year.
Last December, an ECJ ruling said the plan would breach European Union law if alternative tax measures could be introduced.
The court concluded a tax rise on alcoholic drinks “is liable to be less restrictive of trade” than minimum pricing.
The ECJ 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.
Mr Frost said: “We regret the Court of Session’s ruling in favour of the Scottish Government on minimum unit pricing (MUP).
“We continue to believe that MUP is a restriction on trade and that there are more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse.
“However, we of course remain committed to working with all partners to address this problem so that the long-term trend of declining alcohol-related harm in Scotland continues.
“We will study the details of the judgement and consult our members before deciding on next steps, including any possible appeal to the UK Supreme Court.”