THE majority of all super-strength cheap cider sold in Scotland is being consumed purely by "dependent and ill" drinkers - with experts finding some individuals drinking as much as 59 units a week.

There has long been concern about the impact of low-priced strong cider drinks which can cost as little as £2.52 for an entire recommended weekly limit of 14 units.

It has been been dubbed the "scourge" of efforts to fight drink problems in Scotland.

Now the first study of its kind, which interviewed patients attending hospitals and clinics for alcohol treatment, concluded this group accounts for most – if not all – consumption of these drinks.

Study leader Professor Jonathan Chick, visiting professor at Edinburgh Napier University and medical director of the private rehab clinic Castle Craig, said the findings were surprising.

He said: “Of course any manufacturer or retailer of these products will say we didn’t intend this just to be drunk by ill people.

“For some it is almost 100% of their consumption, for others, they would drift to cider when they were short of money, so it would not be their preferred beverage.

“But if someone who is dependent on alcohol feels they need to keep their supply going and if money is short, they will trade down.”

Researchers from Napier and Queen Margaret universities in Edinburgh found that the average strong cider consumption for patients admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related condition was 42 units per week.

For patients who were attending NHS alcohol treatment services and classed as “alcohol dependent”, the average was even higher at 59 units of strong cider during a typical ‘drinking week’.

In a letter published in the journal Clinical Medicine, the researchers say that using estimates based on these figures for the wider population compared with the amount of strong cider sold in Scotland in a year leads to the conclusion that “most, if not all, customers of the cheap strong cider industry are dependent, and possibly ill, drinkers.”

Chick said minimum pricing for a unit of alcohol – which is still caught up in a legal wrangle in Scotland – would eliminate products such as very cheap cider and vodka from the market.

But he added: “The impact of that isn’t fully known, because these people who are purchasing it, we don’t know what would happen if they were no longer able to access that.

“Would they actually then drink less alcohol altogether or would they find other ways of obtaining substitutes? It is an unknown.

“We don’t have much evidence from other countries either about what happens when you suddenly remove very cheap alcohol.

“It is an experiment but it would be certainly worth trying.”

Legislation to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol was passed by the Scottish Parliament four years ago, but legal challenges by the Scotch Whisky Association over concerns it will interfere with free trade of goods and services have delayed the policy.

Judges at the Court of Session are expected to issue a decision soon on the issue of whether minimum pricing will be more or less effective than other taxation measures to reduce harm to health caused by alcohol. However whatever the outcome, it is expected to trigger further appeals.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said increasing the price of the cheapest, strongest drinks would reduce the consumption of the most harmful drinkers. She said a minimum price of 50p per unit will prevent 1,600 hospital admissions and save 60 lives in the first year alone.

A survey carried out by Alcohol Focus Scotland earlier this year found white cider being sold for 18 per unit – equivalent to £2.52 for the recommended weekly unit of 14 units.

Douglas added: “'Industrial’, high strength ‘white’ ciders are the scourge of doctors, alcohol treatment services and homeless charities.

“Some brands are sold in three litre plastic bottles, containing 10 days’ worth of alcohol at guideline levels for less than £4.

“The market for white cider is created by the UK duty system. Strong white ciders attract the lowest duty of any product at just 5p per unit.

“Alcohol Focus Scotland and partners across the UK are calling for a substantially higher rate of duty on it, to end the perverse incentive to produce strong ciders.”

The National Association of Cider Makers, which represents large and small producers, did not respond to request for comment.