The UK Government has announced that it will support Scotland to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol, as its policy comes under a legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association.
The SNP-led Scottish Parliament announced this year that it will introduce a 50p per unit rate on alcohol sales north of the border, in a bid to tackle binge drinking and the health and social consequences of excessive alcohol consumption.
The introduction of the policy is based on work conducted by the University of Sheffield and data from the WHO which shows that even small increases in the price of alcohol can have large effects on outcomes such as the number of deaths related to cirrhosis of the liver.
However, the move has angered alcohol manufacturers and the powerful Scotch whisky lobby, who have moved to challenge the new law in the Scottish courts.
The Advocate General sitting in the House of Lords at Westminster, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has said that UK ministers will not sit on the sidelines whilst the innovative new law is challenged and will instead support the SNP position at a legal conference to discuss the matter being held in Edinburgh this week.
The Coalition has followed their colleagues north of the border by proposing a minimum price of 40p per unit for England and Wales. There are plans to take this policy to public consultation in the near future.
The idea of minimum pricing has not been as welcome in mainland Europe, however, with at least five countries expressing reservations about the legality of such a move. It is thought that minimum pricing could break EU free-trade rules, and may therefore be deemed illegal.
Lord Wallace will tell a conference at Edinburgh University that minimum pricing proposals for England and Wales have the backing of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
"It would be open to the UK Government to sit on the sidelines, and watch while the Scottish Government seeks to fend off these challenges. But we will not do that," he will say.
"The UK Government will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Scottish Government, seeking to support and complement the arguments that they present," he added.
Evidence suggests that a 50p minimum price per unit in Scotland could lead to 60 fewer deaths, 1,600 fewer hospital admissions and 3,500 fewer crimes in the first year.
The Scotch Whisky Association disagrees, however, believing that minimum pricing will be ineffective in tackling the alcohol problem. They say that the policy will not impact on problem or hazardous drinking and will instead be felt most by responsible drinkers who will pay more for their favourite tipple. They also believe that alcohol-related death rates are falling anyway and question the need for a law on minimum pricing in such circumstances.
Gavin Hewitt is the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.
"We agree that Scotland must address the harmful use of alcohol but policy needs to be targeted on the problem," he said.
"Some 30% of those who drink consume 80% of the alcohol sold," he added.
The Scotch Whisky Association's judicial review into the policy on minimum pricing will be heard in the Scottish Court of Session later this month.
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Scotch Whisky industry challenges minimum pricing of alcohol (Scotch Whisky Association)