EU Law Update: EU court refers alcohol pricing law back to national court

Health has been an important theme in the work of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the last month.

In case C-333/14, in a reference arising from a challenge brought by the Scotch Whisky Association, the court considered legislation introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol, which had the objective of protecting human life and health by reducing the hazardous consumption of alcohol and the consumption of alcohol more generally.

The court considered that the effect of the legislation was to significantly restrict the market, which could be avoided by introducing a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol, while allowing traders to determine their own selling price.

The task of determining whether the proposed legislation was justified or if the objectives could be achieved through less restrictive means was referred back to the national court.

Also enacted with a view to promoting health, the EU tobacco directive of 2014 introducing plain packaging for cigarettes, a future EU-wide prohibition on menthol cigarettes and special rules for e-cigarettes was considered to be lawful in the opinion of Advocate General Kokott in a series of challenges brought by Poland, Philip Morris and others.

In the view of the Advocate General, the EU legislature did not exceed the considerable latitude it enjoyed in ensuring that tobacco and related products may be placed on the market under uniform conditions throughout the EU, without losing sight of the fundamental objective of a high level of health protection.

It remains to be seen whether the court will follow this approach.

Meanwhile, in Case C-180/14, the Court of Justice found Greece in violation of its obligation to ensure a maximum weekly working time for doctors, which the court described as a rule of European Union social law of particular importance, since it was a minimum requirement necessary to ensure the protection of safety and health.

Also relevant to workers is the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Barbulescu v Romania. Here it was held that an employer has, in certain circumstances, the right to read and access information that is sent by an employee during their working hours.

There is no suggestion that employers have unlimited access to personal messages sent by employees during office hours and the employee in the case was using a company computer to send personal messages while at work, in direct contravention of a well-advertised and well-known company policy.

The use of purely personal mobile devices appears to be generally safe from employer scrutiny, for now. While Ireland is not bound by the decisions of the ECHR, courts must take due account of them.

Away from the courts, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management announced an aid package of €77 million for the Horn of Africa during a visit on January 21st to Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in the world with 350,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, against the background of the terrorist bombings in Paris in November, the European Counter-Terrorism Centre was launched in Amsterdam on January 25th.

This article by Aileen Murtagh and Catherine Donnelly BL, members of the Irish Society for European Law, was published in the Irish Times on Friday 6 February 2016