THE battle to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol in Scotland is set to for last for years as the Scottish Government fights a series of legal challenges from the drinks industry.
Last week, lawyers for the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) were back at work as an appeal over plans to set a minimum price for wines, beers and spirits got under way at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
The latest round of court action began last Thursday and is expected to conclude on Wednesday, but it has emerged that even if ministers win this round the fight is likely to go to the Supreme Court in England, where cases are being listed for 2015.
Loading article content
The SWA is also prepared to go to the European Court of Justice should it fail at the Supreme Court, pushing back any chance to bring in minimum pricing even further.
The Scottish Government has said it is committed to introducing the policy to address Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and wants to set the price of alcohol at 50p per unit. Its research claims this would cut alcohol-related deaths by 318 within 10 years, slash hospital admissions by 1600 in the first year and cut crime by 3500 offences.
Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "I am absolutely determined to tackle the problems caused by Scotland's difficult relationship with alcohol. 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.
"This is about targeting the cheap drink that causes so much harm within communities, often in the most deprived areas of Scotland."
Despite the assurance that minimum pricing would hit cheap drinks the hardest, the drinks industry says it would not tackle alcohol misuse, would lead to job losses and hit Scotland's lucrative whisky export market.
David Frost, Scotch Whisky Association chief executive, said: "We are serious about tackling alcohol misuse in Scotland but it has to be done in ways which are proven to work. We are taking legal action against minimum unit pricing (MUP) because we believe it is not only illegal under EU law, but actually ineffective in tackling misuse, as well as damaging to the Scotch whisky industry which supports 35,000 jobs across Scotland.
"We are far from alone in this view. Last year, the UK Government abandoned its plans because of lack of evidence MUP would help, and several EU member states and the Commission have voiced concerns."
The SWA's appeal follows a decision by Lord Doherty last May which found overwhelmingly in the Scottish Government's favour on MUP. The move has now put the brakes on minimum pricing, which should have come into effect in April this year, while the two parties settle the issue through the courts.
However, Frost said the SWA had offered to bypass the British courts and speed up the process by seeking a ruling from Europe, but this had been turned down by the Scottish Government.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government did not comment on why that offer had been refused, but said that ministers were "absolutely committed" to introducing minimum pricing for alcohol.
"We strongly believe that, as part of a package of measures, minimum price per unit of alcohol will be an effective and efficient way to tackle alcohol misuse in Scottish communities, with significant health and social benefits."
He added: "However, while the appeal is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment any further."