The Scottish Government’s plans to introduce minimum pricing have suffered a blow after the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice said the move infringed EU rules on free trade.

Yves Bot ruled that minimum pricing would only be legal if it could be proved that there was no other way of improving public health.

David Frost from the Scotch Whisky Association, who originally challenged the proposals, welcomed the news.

“The opinion encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal when there are less trade restrictive measures available. We await the Court of Justice’s final ruling.

“It remains important to address alcohol misuse with a range of other measures of proven effectiveness. We will continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on this. There is a long-term trend of falling alcohol-related deaths and harms in Scotland which suggests that measures in place are working.”

However, Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers chief executive Kate Nicholls called for more clarity.

“The ALMR has always been cautious that the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol alone would address any perceived harms and this is still the case. What the licensed hospitality sector needed was a sense of clarity going forward, but there is still an element of confusion regarding the opinion. We must stress that this is still a preliminary opinion and we should await the formal ruling. If local and national authorities are committed to tackling any perceived health harms due to alcohol, then a better course of action would be to focus on controlling unrestricted off-trade promotions.

“With over 70% of alcohol consumed away from licensed premises, we want to remind the Government that we firmly believe the best place for people to enjoy alcohol is in the safe, supervised environment of a pub and we will continue to promote the positive work of a responsible sector.”

Licensing law specialists Poppleston Allen said that although this judgement was only preliminary, the final decision from the court usually mirrors the decision made by the Advocate General.

Westminster scrapped plans to introduce a minimum of price of between 40p and 50p last year, and decided instead to introduce a ban on the sale of below cost alcohol. Ministers felt minimum unit pricing would be unfair to responsible drinkers.

The final decision judgement from the European Court of Justice is expected later this year.

Paul Chase, leading commentator on alcohol policy, welcomes European Union ruling

“I welcome today’s ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which looks set to reject minimum unit pricing for alcohol. The Scottish Government’s belief that putting a floor under alcohol prices would significantly reduce excessive consumption and health harms was never an evidence-based policy, but a piece of policy-based evidence.

“No matter how many false statistics they tried to crow-bar into the junk-science mathematical models used to justify this measure, the Advocate General has, with his opinion today, seen through this false prospectus and rejected government price-fixing of beverage alcohol.”

“The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has to next issue its final judgement but follows the Advocate General’s opinion in the vast majority of cases. This will hopefully prevent a measure that would have raised the price of nearly 50% of beverage alcohol products sold in the off-trade, and penalised responsible, moderate drinkers as well as impacting disproportionately on people on low incomes, such as pensioners, without really impacting on the consumption of dependent drinkers.”

The judgement is likely to come from Luxembourg within the next six months and will then be referred back to the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh for a final ruling which is expected late 2015 or early 2016.”