UK court allows Scotland to fight drinking problem with alcohol pricing

Key Points
  • Scotland can impose minimum price limits on alcohol, UK's Supreme Court ruled
  • The minimum price per unit starts at 50 pence, or about 66 cents
  • One in 4 Scots drink at "hazardous or harmful" levels, and Scots buy 20 percent more alcohol on average than their English or Welsh counterparts, according to Alcohol Focus Scotland
Scotland fans in joyous mood drinking and singing together in Trafalgar Square ahead of their football match, England vs Scotland, World Cup Qualifiers Group stage on 11th November 2016
Mike Kemp | Contributor | Getty Images

The U.K.'s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Scotland can impose minimum prices on alcohol, a move long opposed by the Scotch Whisky Association. The ruling marks the first time a country has established minimum price rules for alcohol.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: "Absolutely delighted that minimum pricing has been upheld by the Supreme Court. This has been a long road — and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics — but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health."

The ruling will allow the government to set a minimum price of 50 pence ($0.66) per "unit," which is defined as 10 milliliters of pure alcohol. A pint of strong lager or a large glass of wine may contain more than three such units of alcohol.

Nicola Sturgeon tweet

The move was seen as necessary by many public officials in Scotland due to the country's high alcoholism rate. According to Alcohol Focus Scotland, a charity that combats the harmful effects of alcohol, 1 in 4 Scots drink at "hazardous or harmful" levels, and Scots buy 20 percent more alcohol on average than their English or Welsh counterparts. The organization says that the maximum recommended weekly alcohol intake — 14 units — could be purchased for as little as 2.52 pounds ($3.31).

Ministers supporting the law said that a price increase on the cheapest alcohol was needed to address Scotland's "unhealthy relationship with drink." The price increase will be across the board, affecting not only cheap spirits but wine, ciders and beers as well.

The Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group, said it has accepted the ruling, though it previously argued that it was an unfair restriction on trade and that alcoholism could be better tackled by other means.

'Will not affect the price of alcohol sold in pubs'

Any extra profits from the new rules will be kept by the retailers, according to the ruling, which means they will not have to absorb the costs like they would in the case of a duty increase.

Katherine Browne, chief executive of the Institute for Alcohol Studies, said of the ruling: "Today's Supreme Court judgment marks a momentous milestone for public health. Minimum unit pricing is a targeted measure that will tackle the cheapest alcohol that causes the most damage to harmful drinkers. ... It will not affect the price of alcohol sold in pubs and restaurants and moderate drinkers will barely notice any difference."

The Scottish Retail Consortium said in a statement: "The priority now is for the Scottish Government to provide clarity on how the scheme will work in Scotland, and to allow a fair time frame to give businesses the opportunity to prepare. We believe that will require both a reasonable implementation period, of at least six months, and clear guidance so retailers understand exactly how they can effectively implement the policy."

Correction: This report has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of the Scotch Whisky Association.