Thursday 18 July 2019

Drinks giants in threat to block law on minimum alcohol pricing

Spirits Europe warns it will support legal action

Health Minister Leo Varadkar
Health Minister Leo Varadkar
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

A powerful European drinks body backed by producers including Irish Distillers owner Pernod Ricard says it is prepared to support legal action against Ireland if laws on minimum alcohol pricing are introduced here.

The Government is preparing to enact minimum alcohol pricing legislation before the year's end, despite a decision being due from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on December 23 that is almost certain to say that such laws would breach free-trade rules.

The Scotch Whisky Association took a case, backed by representative bodies including Spirits Europe, to the ECJ against efforts to impose minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland.

In September, the ECJ's advocate general, Yves Bot, published an opinion on that case that will make efforts to impose minimum pricing extremely difficult.

Bot's legal opinions are typically adopted by ECJ judges when making rulings. Bot said that increased taxation on alcohol is likely to be a more effective measure in protecting public health, and that minimum pricing may even be perceived as being discriminatory.

He said the Scottish government would only be able to consider imposing a minimum price if it can be shown that higher taxes fail to achieve the desired public health impact.

Paul Skehan, the Brussels-based director general of Spirits Europe, told the Sunday Independent that the organisation would be prepared to support legal action against efforts to introduce minimum unit alcohol pricing in Ireland if necessary. The Irish Spirits Association is a member of the European body.

Skehan - a former head of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland - claimed that the minimum pricing issue is a "bit of a red herring" and that it wouldn't necessarily lead to better health outcomes.

He maintained that modifications to cultural behaviour and societal change would be a better focus for policy makers.

But the Government has insisted that minimum alcohol pricing would save hundreds of lives a year and free up crucial space at hospitals.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar - who is leading the charge to introduce minimum alcohol pricing - wants to eradicate below-cost selling of alcohol, which he believes is fuelling alcohol abuse in Ireland.

The planned new laws here could result in the minimum price for a bottle of wine being set at €8.80, and €2.20 for a can of beer. The legislation will also tackle alcohol marketing and introduce warnings on packaging.

The Vintners Federation of Ireland - which represents publicans outside Dublin - supports the introduction of minimum price legislation.

"It's not the silver bullet," said Skehan of the minimum pricing plan. He said he expects the ECJ's ruling just over two weeks from now to "draw a line under" the issue.

He added that he doesn't see how the Government here can expect to introduce legislation given the likely ruling from the Luxembourg court.

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