Scotland will become the first country in the world to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
The measure is to be introduced early next year following its backing yesterday by Supreme Court justices, more than five years after MSPs passed legislation for it.
And the ruling was hailed by campaigners as “Scotland’s biggest public health breakthrough since the ban on smoking in public places”.
Seven judges at the UK’s highest court dismissed a legal challenge that had been brought against minimum unit pricing by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). The case had already been taken to the highest court in Scotland and the European Court of Justice before it ended up at the UK’s highest court.
During a hearing in July, the judges heard arguments from the SWA that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is “disproportionate” and illegal under European law.
The SWA said there were better ways to achieve the aims of the Scottish Government’s proposed 50p per unit minimum pricing plan.
But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled there was no breach of European Union law and that minimum pricing “is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “absolutely delighted” with the ruling.
She said: “This has been a long road – and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics – but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health.”
The Scottish Government’s believes MUP will mostly affect the cheap white ciders and “value spirits” with high alcohol content that tend to be favoured by harmful drinkers. MUP, simply sets a floor price for a unit of alcohol, meaning it cannot legally be sold for less than that.
The whisky association had claimed the move was a “restriction on trade” and there were more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse.
Afterwards SWA chief executive Karen Betts said: “We accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol in Scotland.
“Looking ahead, the Scotch whisky industry will continue to work in partnership with the government and the voluntary sector to promote responsible drinking and to tackle alcohol related harm. We will now look to the Scottish and UK governments to support the industry against the negative effects of trade barriers being raised in overseas markets that discriminate against Scotch whisky as a consequence of minimum pricing, and to argue for fair competition on our behalf. This is vital in order that the jobs and investment the industry provides in Scotland are not damaged.
“At home, we hope to see an objective assessment of the impact of MUP.”
After the ruling, Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “Today’s decision is a massive victory for Scotland’s health and for our democracy. Minimum unit pricing will save the lives of hundreds of Scots and improve the lives of thousands more.
“Despite parliament passing this legislation unopposed five years ago, the Scotch Whisky Association has consistently obstructed it, putting their members’ profits over the health of the people of Scotland.
“Scotland has been leading the way on minimum unit pricing but other countries, such as Ireland and Wales, are now also actively pursuing legislation.”
She added: “Minimum pricing is Scotland’s biggest public health breakthrough since the ban on smoking in public places.
“The Scottish Government are to be applauded for determinedly seeing it through in the face of global spirits producers’ attempts to deter action and delay implementation.”
Health campaigners argue that when the price of alcohol goes down, consumption of alcohol goes up.
The more affordable drink becomes, the more people use it, and the more harm society experiences because of it, they say.
Scottish health secretary Shona Robison said she intends to make a statement to parliament next week.
She said: “This is a historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol.
“In a ruling of global significance, the UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy.
“This has been a long journey and in the five years since the act was passed, alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have increased.
“With alcohol available for sale at just 18p a unit, that death toll remains unacceptably high.
“Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families.”
She said the Scottish Government would now proceed with plans to bring in minimum unit pricing “as quickly as possible”.
Her statement to Holyrood next week will set out a timetable for implementation.
Shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “Now that the Supreme Court has found the legislation legal, we support the introduction of minimum unit pricing based on the Scottish Government closely monitoring the impact it has.
“Back in 2012 Nicola Sturgeon, then health secretary, agreed to a ‘sunset clause’ that the legislation would be reviewed after five years. This review is important and must be undertaken as comprehensively as possible.
“I urge the Scottish Government to use this legislation in conjunction with a range of different measures to effectively reduce the impact of alcohol abuse in Scotland.”
Scottish Labour’s public health spokesperson Colin Smyth MSP gave a qualified welcome the the news. He said: “Minimum unit pricing is not a silver bullet and – on its own – will not solve Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol.
“Labour will engage constructively with any plans the government brings forward but concerns remain that, unlike a tax-based solution, the only guarantee is increased profits for major supermarket chains.
“The SNP has slashed funding for alcohol and drug partnerships by 24 per cent in recent years, cutting support for people including the poorest in the most deprived communities.”
He concluded: “Scotland needs a comprehensive, fully-funded strategy to tackle problem drinking – and any approach to tackling Scotland’s unhealthy drinking culture has to see an end to the SNP’s budget cuts to support services.”