Balancing Free Movement and Public Health: The Case of Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in Scotch Whisky
21 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2016 Last revised: 4 Sep 2016
Date Written: July 1, 2016
Scotland is the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol to reduce consumption. The relevant industry did not hesitate to challenge this new alcohol control policy before courts. The ensuing judgment contains a wealth of insights stemming from regulatory autonomy to proportionality review.
What is the role of a national court in the review of national measures restricting free movement? In particular, how should it review the proportionality of those measures when adopted on public health grounds, and on the basis of what evidence? What is the burden of proof that the relevant Member State must discharge? Those are essentially the questions referred by a Scottish court to the Court of Justice when called upon to determine the compatibility with EU law of Minimum Unit Prices for alcohol introduced by the Scottish Government. Although rather recurrent in the Court’s free movement case law, the question of the standard of review, and corresponding burden of proof epitomises the struggle currently faced by national courts in striking the right balance between the proper functioning of the market and due recognition and protection of national regulatory autonomy. As such, this preliminary reference offered an opportunity to address “the information gap on what the Court of Justice expects defendant States to establish” in order to justify their measures under the proportionality stages of free movement analysis. But there is more. This case also raises deeper epistemic and methodological questions faced by any court of law when asked to review the proportionality, and in particular the necessity, of an individual policy intervention that belongs to a wider ‘political strategy’. Indeed, those strategies – as exemplified in the present case by the Scottish policy designed to combat the devastating effects of alcohol – generally entail the enactment of a full ‘regulatory mix’ of policy interventions. In those circumstances, how can we pinpoint the effect of a given policy option when it is part of a set of measures? How can we distinguish the effect, in terms of health gains deriving from a drop in alcohol consumption, to be ascribed to the introduction of MUP when such a measure coexists with other measures (more than 40 in Scotland) that have been introduced? And what when the contested measure has never been tested before? While this judgment confirms the gradual empirical turn made by the Court in its own review of the proportionality of national restrictive measures, it also provides some pragmatic guidance on how national courts may realistically engage in that review. Given the growing number of Member States ready to experiment with new policies aimed at tackling inter alia lifestyle risk factors, such as tobacco use, harmful consumption of alcohol and unhealthy diets, this appears as welcome development. Ultimately, the ensuing number of national restrictive measures of trade enacted on public health grounds, such as the UK standardised packaging for cigarettes, its sugar tax or the Hungarian ‘fat tax’, is set to put to test the Court’s approach towards both the qualification of those measures as restrictions and their justification under EU law.
Keywords: EU law, proportionality, tax, minimum unit pricing, alcohol, lifestyle, NCD, precautionary principle, risk regulation, judicial review
JEL Classification: K23, K32, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation