European court set to pave way for minimum drink prices
Published 23/12/2015 | 02:30
Health officials are already working to set up a ban on cheap booze in anticipation of today's final ruling by the European Court of Justice on minimum pricing of alcohol.
The court is expected to favour the initial ruling delivered in September - which states minimum pricing can be legal, as long as governments show that no other measures will achieve the same public health benefits.
Speaking at the recent publication of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said officials were already preparing a case to support the introduction of minimum pricing, showing it is likely to reduce harmful drinking.
The European Court ruling follows a challenge by the Scottish Whisky Association to Scotland's plans to introduce minimum pricing.
The proposed Irish legislation plans to introduce a minimum unit price of 10c per gram of alcohol in alcohol products.
The goal is to reduce average annual alcohol consumption in Ireland from 11 to 9.1 litres per person, per year, by 2020.
Health officials here say the price of alcohol is directly linked to consumption levels and the scale of alcohol-related harm. As the price increases, consumption rates fall.
The University of Sheffield has estimated that this measure alone could save €1.7bn over 20 years by reducing healthcare costs, crime and policing, reducing absenteeism and improving quality of life.
In the initial ruling, the European Court of Justice Advocate General Yves Bot said the move risked infringing EU rules on free trade.
He said it would be legal only if it could be shown no other mechanism could deliver the desired public health benefits.
He said a member state could choose rules imposing a minimum retail price of alcoholic beverages, which restricts trade within the European Union and distorts competition, rather than increased taxation of those products.
This is only on condition it shows that the measure chosen presents additional advantages or fewer disadvantages by comparison with the alternative measure.
It is for domestic courts to take a final decision on minimum unit pricing.
However, drinks companies will hope that even if minimum pricing finally jumps all the legal hurdles, it may not be supported by the European Commission.