The Scottish Government was warned last night that its minimum price for alcohol was unlikely to produce significant results because it had been set too low, at 50p per unit.
Health Secretary Shona Robison predicted the move would “save thousands of lives” and stop families falling apart through alcohol abuse.
However, opposition parties and health scientists argue that the effect of the policy would be “considerably reduced” because the minimum price had not been increased from the level first proposed in 2011. They argued for a rate of 60p or higher.
In two months’ time Scotland will become the first country in the world to set a minimum unit price, in an attempt to curb the nation’s drink problem. Retailers will be breaking the law from 1 May if they sell alcohol for less than 50p per unit.
Under the plans announced yesterday, a bottle of wine of 12 per cent strength will cost at least £4.50, while four 440ml cans of 5 per cent strength lager would cost at least £4.40. A 70cl bottle of whisky would £14 or more, while a three litre bottle of 7.5 per cent cider would cost £11.25.
The Scottish Parliament voted through the legislation in 2012, but it was delayed by a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association.
Scientists at the Royal Society of Edinburgh said setting minimum pricing at 70p – which could see the minimum price for a bottle of wine rise to around £6.50 – would “reflect a greater degree of ambition”.
A spokesman said: “An increase to 60p could be feasible, reflect the changes to the economy since 2011, and could be supported by a majority in the Scottish Parliament.
“A rise to a rate of 70p would reflect a greater degree of ambition and might also be supported, and would have a larger effect on the consumption of alcohol and on inequalities of outcomes.
“We have concerns that the 50p rate proposed in 2011 will be introduced now and remain for a further five years, by which time its real value and therefore the effectiveness of MUP [minimum unit pricing] will be considerably reduced.”
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association said setting MUP at 50p would “impact around half of all products on the shelf”.
In its analysis of the consultation responses, the Scottish Government said a 50p minimum unit price was “proportionate” as it struck a balance between public health and market intervention.
Alcohol-related harm currently costs Scotland around £3.6 billion a year and causes 24 deaths a week. It is estimated that a 50p unit price could lead to 8,200 fewer hospital admissions within five years.
Both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats called for the price to be raised to 60p a unit, while Labour said the extra money made by supermarkets as a result of the increases should be “clawed back” and spent on public health.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “In excess, alcohol wrecks lives, families and communities. Low prices for decades have increased that harm caused in Scotland.
“Inflation has eroded the value of the original minimum price during the years that this policy has been caught up in the courts. That is one of the reasons why Scottish Liberal Democrats pressed the Scottish Government to introduce a higher rate but ministers have bottled it. With hospitalisations on the rise, we need to see the Scottish Government do far more to tackle the scourge of alcohol abuse.”
Ms Robison said: “With alcohol on sale today in some places at just 16p per unit, we have to tackle the scourge of cheap, high-strength drink that causes so much damage to so many families. This move will save thousands of lives.”
Almost three-quarters of those who responded to a public consultation on the plans said ministers should stick to their plans to set it at 50p.
Dr Eric Carlin, director of the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, said the public were now “on board” with the 50p rate and called for it to be reviewed regularly.
He said: “We want to see every two years a review based on what’s happening with prices and with the policy more generally.
“At some point I think we are going to see the rate reviewed upwards.”