A NEW minimum price for alcohol is likely to become law within a year, after the SNP vowed the measure would be the key priority of its second term in office.
The newly re-elected Nationalist administration has confirmed the 45-pence-per-unit minimum-price measure will be in its first legislative programme after it was blocked in the last parliament by opposition parties.
Sources suggested the legislation would most likely come into force on 1 April next year.
The measure was first proposed by the SNP in the last parliament in response to Scotland's problem drinking culture.
The British Medical Association revealed earlier this month that alcohol was a factor in more than 5,500 GP consultations in Scotland on one day in April and medical leaders last night welcomed the SNP's pledge to revive the pricing policy.
Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of the BMA in Scotland, said: "I am pleased that the new Scottish Government has made a commitment to reintroduce a minimum pricing bill.
"The NHS is buckling under the pressure of having to pick up the pieces of Scotland's drinking culture which has largely been driven by cheap, strong alcohol.
"The BMA is convinced by the evidence that exists to link price and consumption and from the modelling work undertaken by Sheffield University, that a minimum pricing approach would reduce the social and health harms associated with excessive alcohol consumption, sadly a trademark of Scotland's national identity."
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However, industry leaders are now calling for talks with Scottish Government ministers to warn of the dangers the policy presents.
"We recognise the political reality is that if the new SNP government is minded to proceed with its drive to introduce minimum pricing it is clearly in a position to do so," a Scotch whisky industry spokeswoman said.
"However, we will be seeking an early meeting with the Scottish Government to encourage it to understand all the implications of minimum pricing, including the long-term consequences.
"We remain convinced there are significant legal difficulties with the policy. We are also concerned at the long-term effect on the Scotch whisky industry in our export markets, a matter we hope the government will consider closely, given its policy priority to boost exports."
The SNP has insisted that whisky, as a premium product, would not be affected by a minimum price. But this has been rejected by the Scotch Whisky Association, which insists the measure will "undermine" its 3 billion a year exports.
Producers fear minimum alcohol pricing could set a precedent for those in export markets to introduce their own health-based tax regimes to curb trade in whisky.
The 45-per-unit pricing level, which the SNP wanted to introduce late last year, would have added about 3 to the cost of some supermarket own-brand whiskies and trebled the cost of the cheapest super-strength ciders sold by major super- markets, while raising the cost of cheap supermarket vodka by around 4 a bottle.
A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association also said yesterday that the plans could be open to legal challenge. "Minimum pricing would punish the vast majority of responsible drinkers with higher prices, hitting those on low incomes hardest yet there is no evidence it would address the root causes of alcohol misuse."
The drinks lobby has insisted that minimum pricing on spirits was ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice in 1978. Countries can take measures to tackle alcohol-related harm, but they should use other less trade- restrictive means, including tax on duty. The minimum price measure commanded the support of wider civic society in Scotland and also from some parts of the drinks industry, including brewers and the licensed on-trade.
The new Nationalist government will have an unprecedented majority of MSPs at Holyrood and no longer needs to rely on opposition parties to pass legislation.
The minimum pricing bill will form the centrepiece of the Nationalists' legislative programme which is likely to be unveiled in September when MSPs return after the summer recess. It could go through in as little as three months with another month or so to gain Royal Assent.
The minimum price is expected to remain at 45p, but it is unlikely that this will remain as part of the main bill, but be passed as secondary legislation. This will make it easier to alter in future but will add time to the legislative path through Holyrood.
The minimum price being proposed would cut hospital admissions by 1,200 a year and mean nearly 23,000 fewer days lost from work in the first year alone, health leaders say.
Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, also said it estimated that a minimum price per unit of 45p would save around 50 lives in the first year.
"There will be major benefits to Scotland's health and well-being if the new Scottish Government moves quickly to introduce minimum unit pricing," she added.
"The SNP made it clear that they would introduce minimum pricing if re-elected. With such a convincing win, there is no reason to delay bringing forward this policy."