SCOTLAND is set to become the first country in Europe to introduce a minimum alcohol price, after the plans were backed by MSPs at Holyrood.
The move was hailed as a “landmark moment” by health secretary Nicola Sturgeon, who said it would save lives and tackle Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
A 50p minimum unit price will come into effect next spring, putting the price of the cheapest bottle of wine at £4.69, while a four-pack of lager will cost at least £3.52.
However, the prospect of a legal battle is still looming, with the drinks industry insisting the plans breach European trade laws.
Only Labour failed to back the plans at Holyrood yesterday, amid concerns over the likely £125 million “windfall” it will give to supermarkets.
But Ms Sturgeon said: “This is a landmark moment in Scotland’s fight against alcohol misuse.
“I am delighted that parliament has passed the bill and minimum pricing will now become law.
“It is time to turn the tide of alcohol misuse that for too long has been crippling our country. Minimum pricing will kick-start a change by addressing a fundamental part of our alcohol culture – the availability of high-strength, low-cost alcohol.”
Canada is the only other country in the world to have adopted a form of minimum pricing, but drinks industry chiefs say a legal challenge is inevitable.
Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said the policy had “consistently been found to be illegal in Europe”.
He went on: “We look forward to the scrutiny of both the principle of minimum pricing and the regulation setting the price by the European Commission [EC] and the member states of the European Union.
“We expect legal challenges to emerge once the Scottish Government notifies its proposals to the EC.”
Labour abstained on the measure at Holyrood, after its proposal to claw back some of the £125m likely to go to supermarkets was rejected.
The party’s public health spokesman, Dr Richard Simpson, said: “Communities that suffer alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, will be left wondering why – at time when budgets across the public sector are tight and the alcohol-misuse budget is being cut by the SNP by over £3m – the SNP has voted to stuff the pockets of supermarket shareholders with gold, instead of ploughing the £125m windfall back into our police and health service that are left to deal with the effects of alcohol misuse.”
The coalition government at Westminster has already announced plans to follow Holyrood and introduce a minimum price of 40p per unit in England and Wales.
The Scottish minimum price of 50p will remain for at least two years to allow the market to react and settle before the price level is reviewed.
A previous attempt by the SNP to introduce minimum pricing failed, being voted down at Holyrood when the party was in a minority administration.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats have since changed policy to support the plan, and, in any event, the SNP now has an overall majority in the parliament.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie hailed the legislation as “pioneering”.
The Scottish Conservatives’ deputy leader, Jackson Carlaw, said: “I fear it cannot achieve all that some have hoped for it, but I believe it will make a contribution.”