Judges at Scotland's highest civil court have rejected an appeal against plans to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol.

The Court of Session in Edinburgh refused the case, which had been brought by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others, saying that "the grounds submitted in the appeal were not well founded".

They made their final ruling after considering whether the infringement of European trade laws that minimum pricing would bring are justified by the benefits to public health - and if this could be achieved by any other means.

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MSPs passed legislation at Holyrood in 2012 to bring in minimum pricing, which would initially be set at 50p per unit.

But implementation of the policy stalled after the SWA and other European wine and spirits producers took legal action, arguing minimum pricing would breach European law.

The ruling has been welcomed by groups including Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP).

Dr Peter Rice, SHAAP Chair, said: “As the heaviest drinkers in Scotland have switched from drinking in pubs to drinking at home, and from whisky and beer to vodka and strong cider, doctors and health professionals have seen the impact on our patients.

“We are satisfied that the Scottish courts have concluded that MUP is legal, as we have argued for many years, and we now call for it to be implemented without delay.

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“During the years when the SWA and its backers have prevented implementation, front line staff have seen hundreds of deaths and thousands of lives damaged. Much of this harm would have been avoided if MUP had been in place.

“We now call for the SWA to step aside and allow this life saving measure to go ahead.”

Alison Douglas Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said: "This is a great day for Scotland’s health! Minimum pricing is widely supported by doctors, social workers, children’s charities and many more who want to get rid of the cheap vodkas and super-strength ciders that cause so much damage.

"Scotland has been waiting more than four years to implement this policy which will prevent thousands of hospital admissions and crimes, and save hundreds of lives. We hope that minimum pricing will now be put in place as quickly as possible so we can start seeing the benefits."

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The judges said the previous Court of Session ruling "correctly concluded that whatever arguments may be deployed against it, there was evidence which demonstrated that the alternative of increased tax, with or without a prohibition on below cost sales, would be less effective than minimum pricing".

SWA chief executive David Frost said the organisation will now consult with its members before deciding on any further action, which could see the case taken to the UK Supreme Court.

Holyrood's Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell hailed the "landmark" verdict from the Court of Session.

She said: "I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgment in our favour from 2013. This follows the opinion of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that it was for our domestic courts to make a final judgment on the scheme.

"The Scotch Whisky Association represents some of Scotland's finest whisky brands, and while they were entitled to raise this action, they and the wider drinks industry must now respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament and the ruling of the Court of Session and enable this life-saving measure to be introduced.

"This policy was passed by the Scottish Parliament unopposed more than four years ago.

"In that time, the democratic will of our national Parliament has been thwarted by this ongoing legal challenge, while many people in Scotland have continued to die from the effects of alcohol misuse.

"Today's ruling is a landmark one, and should mark the end of the legal process, allowing this important policy to finally be brought forward."

The Scottish Government has consistently argued minimum pricing is the "most effective mechanism" for tackling alcohol misuse and reducing the harm it can cause.

But the SWA claimed it would be ineffective in its aims, penalise responsible drinkers and was beyond the powers of Holyrood.

Judge Lord Doherty initially rejected the challenge at the Court of Session in 2013 but it was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg the following year.

Last December, an ECJ ruling said the plan would breach European Union law if alternative tax measures could be introduced.

The court concluded a tax rise on alcoholic drinks ''is liable to be less restrictive of trade'' than minimum pricing.

The ECJ said it would be for the Court of Session to make a final decision after determining whether any alternative measure could equal the stated public health benefit while being less restrictive of trade.

Mr Frost said: "We regret the Court of Session's ruling in favour of the Scottish Government on minimum unit pricing (MUP).

"We continue to believe that MUP is a restriction on trade and that there are more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse.

"However, we of course remain committed to working with all partners to address this problem so that the long-term trend of declining alcohol-related harm in Scotland continues.

"We will study the details of the judgement and consult our members before deciding on next steps, including any possible appeal to the UK Supreme Court."

The opinion, delivered by Lord President Lord Carloway, said the "targeted objective" of the MUP policy is "the consumption of cheap alcohol by those whose health is most likely to be adversely affected by it".

It said: "In practical terms, the measure achieves the targeted objective by setting a floor price below which alcohol cannot be sold. Alcohol will not be sold for less than 50p per unit. Those who currently consume cheap alcohol at a harmful and hazardous level will not be able to switch to another product to maintain their consumption levels.

"The true area for debate is whether modification of taxation, within the permissible bounds of EU law, can achieve similar results in targeting cheap alcohol as is undoubtedly achievable with minimum pricing.

"Here, of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that the Scottish Government has no power to raise taxation on alcohol. That is a matter reserved to the United Kingdom Government.

"Conversely, the UK Government has little responsibility for the health of the inhabitants of Scotland; that being a devolved matter."

It also said a "fundamental problem with an increase in tax is simply that it does not produce a minimum price", adding that supermarkets have in the past "absorbed any tax increases by off-setting them against the price of other products unrelated to alcohol".

Increasing tax could also have "a disproportionate, undesirable and unnecessary effect on moderate drinkers, who do not generally represent a significant problem in societal terms", according to the ruling.

It added: "It is reasonable to conclude that alternative measures, including increases in taxation, are not capable of protecting life and health as effectively as minimum pricing, while being less restrictive of trade."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who took minimum pricing legislation through Holyrood when she served as health secretary, said she is "delighted" the policy has been upheld by the Court of Session.

She tweeted: "Minimum pricing is a vital public health measure with strong support from those who work in frontline of alcohol misuse. It will save lives."

The ruling was also welcomed by academics at Sheffield University who carried out research for the Scottish Government on the likely impact of minimum pricing.

Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said: "Our analyses of minimum unit pricing have consistently shown that the policy is an effective and well-targeted approach to reducing the harm caused by alcohol.

"Increasing alcohol taxation is also an effective approach but large tax increases would be required to achieve the same effects as a 50p minimum unit price. This is because minimum unit pricing targets the high-strength and low-cost alcohol which is disproportionately purchased by heavier drinkers."

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron said Tories had backed the policy "on the condition it would be legally sound and could be dropped if found not to be working".

He added: "It's taken the SNP a considerable length of time to get to this stage. But now it's happened, we need to monitor the results closely to see what impact it has on Scotland's damaging and complex relationship with alcohol."

Scottish Green Party health spokeswoman Alison Johnstone said: "The big drinks firms stalling this sensible piece of public health legislation are copying the historic behaviour of the tobacco industry.

"Let's hope the Scotch Whisky Association gets the message and allows the Scottish Government to get on and implement this urgent public health priority."