Comment - Minimum Pricing: We've Only Just Begun
Wine-producing EU countries may also launch a challenge against minimum pricing
The debate around minimum pricing in the UK is starting to feel more than ever like a can of worms. I'm not quite sure, however, who has got the biggest mess to deal with.
Next month, a government consulation examining the idea of a floor price for England and Wales is due to kick off. Despite the feeling that the whole thing might have been a hasty decision by Prime Minister David Cameron, it is suddenly starting to feel more like a reality. Cameron has also shuffled Andrew Lansley, his previous minimum price-opposing Health Secretary, out of his Cabinet. His replacement, Jeremy Hunt, is unlikely to offer much opposition to the measure.
And, judging by their response to the health select committee's report on alcohol this week, Cameron and his pals still appear keen on the idea - suggesting it may even link minimum pricing to inflation.
For the industry, in the meantime, all eyes remain on Scotland. One senior insider I spoke to last week told me he was feeling a lot more positive about defeating the Scottish National Party's plans, particularly since the Scotch Whisky Association's two-pronged legal challenge. "It's 50/50 now whereas before the odds were stacked against us before," I was told.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, meanwhile, has been cheered by the revelation that Bulgaria is the first EU country to launch a formal challenge to Scotland's plans with the European Commission. This also paves the way for other EU states to challenge the move. In particular, I hear that wine-producing southern European countries could be in the queue to join the attack.
Brewers are also present in the anti- camp. SABMiller was only too happy to share an old piece of research with a national newspaper at the weekend, highlighting how a minimum price will fill the coffers of supermarket chains.
But, where will this all lead?
The WSTA's head of communications, Gavin Partington (soon to leave for the top job at the British Soft Drinks Association), suggested to me that it could to go all the way to the top - the European Court of Justice. "I can see it getting referred to the ECJ for a ruling," he said.
Minimum pricing may well eventually get "defeated" but, from an industry perspective, the longer the issue drags on, the more that the percieved link between alcohol abuse and price will get hauled through the press. For businesses, this may be a hit worth taking to prevent government intervention on price, but image-wise for the trade, it will not be a pretty spectacle. And in this 24-hour, social media society, image is (almost) everything.
You have been warned.
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