ONE of Scotland's leading public health experts has called on the Scottish Government to set a minimum price for alcohol 50 per cent higher than is currently proposed.
Dr Emilia Crighton, the convener of the Faculty of Public Health in Scotland, claimed 900 lives a year would be saved in Scotland if the minimum price was 60p per unit.
This would mean a bottle of wine would cost at least 5.40, while spirits would be at 15.75 per bottle and whisky 16.80.
However, even at 60p a unit, the price of Buckfast, which has been associated with anti-social behaviour, would be unaffected. This is because its price – around 7 per bottle – is already high in relation to its alcohol content.
In its consultation document, the Scottish Government set out a baseline of 40p, although it has refused to commit itself to a price before the bill is published.
However, last night, sources close to health secretary Nicola Sturgeon refused to rule out setting the price higher, although they said that it was unlikely to be as high as 60p.
But the intervention of Dr Crighton has posed a dilemma for SNP ministers who are facing fierce opposition from the drinks industry over setting the price at just 40p per unit.
Dr Crighton's claims suggest the level needs to be much higher to have a serious impact on drinking in Scotland.
She spoke out after delegates at the faculty's Scottish conference in Peebles unanimously voted in favour of minimum pricing for alcohol. She insisted there was an "overwhelming case" that cheap drink was damaging Scotland's health.
She said: "The evidence shows that a considerable public health impact would be achieved at 60p per unit of alcohol sold.
"Research suggests that 866 alcohol-related deaths each year would be prevented by the introduction of a 60p minimum price once the policy is in full effect."
Ms Sturgeon welcomed the support for minimum pricing from "those at the sharp end protecting public health".
Ms Sturgeon said: "Critics claim minimum pricing would raise the price of all drinks and punish moderate drinkers. But that just doesn't stack up.
"Almost all drinks in the pub are already sold well above any likely minimum price, so they wouldn't be affected.
"And if the level of the minimum price was about 40p per unit, the vast majority of supermarket wines, beers and whiskies would see no change in price.
"But the cheap white ciders and low-grade spirits favoured by problem drinkers would rise in price, to a cost that better reflects their high alcohol content. It's a way of making sure strong drink is sold at a sensible price."
However, with the bill expected to be published on Monday next week, there are still question marks over whether Ms Sturgeon will be able to get support for the proposal in Holyrood with the Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats already against it.
This is despite growing support from the Lib Dems in Westminster, most recently from front-bencher Don Foster.
Labour still have not decided whether to back the proposal, although many believe that they are intending to oppose it with the appointment of Jackie Baillie, who has the Chivas Distillery in her Dumbarton constituency, as health spokeswoman.
Ms Baillie said: "I think that minimum has become a bit of a totem for those who want something done about Scotland's problems with alcohol.
"It has led us down a narrow alley and other ways of tackling the problem seem to have been largely forgotten."
Drinks industry figures described the 60p proposal as a disaster.
David Williamson, public affairs manager with the Scotch Whisky Association, said yesterday: "A minimum price of 60p a unit would have a serious impact on whisky in its home market."