The European Court of Justice has passed judgement on the excise duty case that has been worrying retailers who target so-called booze cruises.

The ECJ said today (23 November) that shoppers buying cheaper goods abroad will still have to accompany the goods back themselves.

The ruling is a relief for traders in Calais, for example, who were concerned that Britons would no longer need to travel across the Channel to get cheaper alcohol. The fear had been that the court would rule that products bought abroad and sent to other countries should only be taxed in their country of origin, thus opening the way for a massive increase in mail order and Internet sales.

"Products which are not held for private purposes must necessarily be regarded as being held for commercial purposes for the application of the directive on excise duty," the ruling stated.

The case came about after a group of Dutch consumers queried why they had to pay French excise duty on wine bought in the country as well as in their home country. The group, calling themselves 'Cercle des Amis du Vin', ordered wine from France, which was collected by a Dutch transport company and delivered to the group. Both countries subsequently levied excise duty on the wine.

The ECJ said that, in order for products to be exempt from excise duty in the state of importation - in this case, the Netherlands - then the law requires those products be intended for the personal use of the private individual who has bought them and that it, therefore, excludes products acquired by a private individual for the use of other private individuals.

Furthermore, shoppers buying cheaper goods abroad will still have to accompany the goods back themselves. Were this not so, the effect, for the authorities of the member states, would be an increased risk of fraud as the transport of products covered by the exemption requires no documentation.

The chief executive of the UK's Wine and Spirit Trade Association, Jeremy Beadles, welcomed the decision.

"We are pleased that the European Court of Justice has decided to maintain the existing position on personal imports of alcohol," he said. "We are all in favour of a free-market economy but it has to be on the basis of a level playing field.  The speculation around this decision has highlighted the different excise duty rates across the European Union and any other outcome could potentially have put UK businesses at a serious disadvantage compared to their European counterparts."