MINIMUM pricing for alcohol would effectively target high- risk drinkers without affecting people on low incomes who drink in moderation, according to new research.

A minimum price of 45p per unit would reduce deaths and hospital admissions among high-risk drinkers who purchase large quantities of low-cost alcohol. Those considered "harmful drinkers" would contribute to three quarters of the decrease in total alcohol consumption, according to a modelling study from the University of Sheffield.

Harmful drinkers on the lowest incomes - the bottom 20% - would be most affected by minimum pricing, say the researchers.

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The policy would, however, have negligible effects on the alcohol consumption and spending of low-income, moderate drinkers.

The results are contrary to the position of representatives of the Scottish drinks industry

Drinks industry bodies are challenging the Scottish Government's plan for a minimum unit price of 50p on the basis it contravenes EU trading rules.

Aidan O'Neill QC, who is acting for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), has attacked the argument that it would tackle harmful drinking in deprived communities.

He told the Court of Session in Edinburgh that "the evidence is that harmful and hazardous drinking is more associated with affluence rather than with poverty".

Mr O'Neill also said that alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have fallen without the need of minimum pricing measures.

The University of Sheffield's model, however, predicted that a minimum price would help tackle drinking in low-income groups.

Harmful drinkers on low incomes spend on average just under £2700 a year on alcohol, with around two fifths bought for less than 45p per unit.

The study, which is published in The Lancet, projected they would reduce their alcohol consumption by nearly 300 units per year under minimum pricing. Director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, Professor Petra Meier, one of the report's authors, said: "Our study finds no evidence to support the concerns ... that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.

"Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol. By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities."

The university's model, which analyses how consumers respond to price changes, shows how those in different socio-economic groups would change their drinking habits and spending if a minimum price was implemented.

Overall, those most affected by the change would be the 5% of the population whose drinking is classed as "harmful", which is more than 50 units per week for men and 35 units per week for women.Dr John Holmes, the study's lead author, said: "Overall, the impact of a minimum unit price policy on moderate drinkers would be very small, irrespective of income.

"The policy would mainly affect harmful drinkers, and it is those who purchase more alcohol below the minimum unit price threshold than any other group who would be most affected."