OPPONENTS in the minimum price for alcohol debate have cranked up the rhetoric as a legal challenge to the Scottish Government's plans looms at the Court of Session.
Health Secretary Alex Neil has said evidence that alcohol costs as little as 20p a unit is proof minimum pricing is needed to battle Scotland's relationship with drink.
He said at the weekend it was possible to buy a week's worth of the "sensible" amount of alcohol for less than £5.
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But alcohol industry leaders said the policy would not tackle alcohol abuse effectively and could put up trade barriers around the world.
Whisky industry sources claim the appeal could drag on until 2017, meaning minimum pricing would be on hold for at least three years.
The controversial policy aims to set a 50p price per unit, and is scheduled to be heard at the Court of Session in Edinburgh later this week.
It follows the rejection of a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to pioneering scheme in May last year.
It appealed against that judgment, pitting the two sides against each other again in court this week.
The SWA says minimum pricing is a regressive policy that hits responsible drinkers, particularly those on lower incomes.
It also notes the UK Government decided against pursuing a similar policy because of a lack of "concrete evidence".
Mr Neil said: "Each week on average in Scotland, alcohol misuse is responsible for more than 20 deaths and 700 hospital admissions. Being able to buy 20 units of alcohol for the change in your pocket is just unacceptable.
"It shows that this kind of high-strength alcohol,the type which does much of the damage, has become far too cheap in Scotland.
"Time and time again the research proves that affordability is the key factor in the misuse of alcohol and that the most effective way to tackle this is by setting a minimum unit price.
"Minimum pricing would begin saving lives within months of its introduction and while it is regrettable that the policy is being subject to delays as a result of the legal challenge, the Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to bringing in legislation that would set the minimum price for a unit of alcohol at 50p."
He pointed to research showing three litres of branded high-strength cider, about 22 units, was available for £4.50; 12 cans of lager, containing 21 units, for £8; and 26 units of supermarket-brand vodka for less than £11.
Rosemary Gallagher of the SWA said: "The Scottish Government's own report says 'the main driver of increasing affordability has been rising disposable incomes'. But while affordability may have risen, alcohol-related harms and deaths have been falling in Scotland in recent years. Deaths have fallen 36% from a peak in 2003.
"This would suggest measures in place are already working. And the Government's figures also show that alcohol prices have risen faster than inflation, by some 24%."
Mr Neil's comments come days after he told a pro-independence gathering that Margaret Thatcher's government failure to replace jobs lost as a result of the closure of heavy industry led directly to a rise in drink-related deaths in Scotland.
The minister quoted research from Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns that showed a sharp rise in the number of cases of liver disease in the country over the last 30 years.
The Tories branding Mr Neil's claims "preposterous" and accused him of "parroting myths about Mrs Thatcher nearly 25 years after she left office".