Yves Bot, advocate general to the European Court of Justice, says minimum unit pricing could only be used if no other mechanisms (such as increased taxes) could deliver the same public health benefits.
In May 2012 the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to introduce a minimum unit price of 50p for alcohol.
But the move was challenged by drinks associations, who said there is no link between alcohol price increases and reduction in alcohol-related harm. Instead, they fear the ‘ineffective’ measure would create an illegal barrier to trade and negatively impact the industry.
Although the ruling is not the final stage in the process (the final ruling is expected early next year) the advocate general’s opinion is an important stage.
"Advocate General Bot is of the opinion that such a system risks infringing the principle of the free movement of goods and would only be legal if it could be shown that no other mechanism was capable of achieving the desired result of protecting public health" said a statement from his office.
The Scotch Whisky Association, spiritsEUROPE and Comité Vins, launched legal action against minimum unit pricing in 2012.
The associations have welcomed the advocate general's comments, and say they now await the Court of Justice’s final ruling.
“The opinion encourages us in our long-held view that minimum unit pricing is illegal, when there are less restrictive measures available,” said David Frost, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.
Paul Skehan, director general of spiritsEUROPE, added: “Instead of wasting more time debating the illegality of minimum unit pricing, we believe it would be far better to discuss useful, legal ways of tackling the alcohol-related issues that persist.”
“There are a range of other initiatives of proven effectiveness, not based on theoretical computer models.”
Scotland says it has the right policy
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, said she also welcomes the opinion because it sets out the tests a national court has to apply in order to introduce minimum unit pricing.
“The Scottish Government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities,” she said. “We believe minimum unit pricing would save hundreds of lives in coming years and we will continue to vigorously make the case for this policy.”