THE Scottish Government's plans to set a minimum price for alcohol have been given a significant boost from David Cameron's sudden enthusiasm for introducing similar legislation in England.

The Prime Minister has instructed officials to develop a scheme to prevent alcohol being sold at less than 40p to 50p a unit as part of the UK Government's wider alcohol strategy o be published in February. By that time, the SNP Government should have determined its minimum price based on an updated study of the effects of different off-sales prices by researchers at Sheffield University. This offers an opportunity to overcome the obvious loophole created by raising the price in one part of the UK when there is no minimum imposed on outlets a few miles across the Border.

With Scottish Health Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, expected to decide on around 45p as the minimum level, it is heartening that Mr Cameron appears to be thinking along the same lines. His appetite for a "big bang approach" however is already provoking anger in England at a policy seen as increasing the reach of the nanny state. By contrast, popular opinion in Scotland increasingly favours a minimum price as part of a wider strategy to tackle alcohol abuse.

The Herald has consistently argued that a minimum price should be introduced along with better enforcement of the current licensing laws and a concerted education campaign. If research findings are correct, raising the price of the bargain brands favoured by problem drinkers should result in 50 fewer alcohol-related deaths, 1200 fewer hospital admissions, a £5.5m reduction in health care costs and a 22,900 drop in days lost from work in the first year alone.

Medical opinion on both sides of the Border is united in support of a mimimum price but the issue is only beginning to engage the wider public in England. Coalition Cabinet Ministers are suggesting increasing tax on alcohol as an alternative. This has the advantage of making the Treasury (and potentially the NHS) the beneficiary of the extra money rather than retailers and producers. That option is not available to the Scottish Government, and control of excise duty, although favoured by the SNP, is not included in the Scotland Bill. The question of whether imposing a minimum price would breach EU competition law has also been raised in England. Scottish Ministers believe there is no legal obstacle because the primary reason for legislation is to tackle a major health problem.

As with the ban on smoking in public places, the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh has shown an ability to lead the way in implementing radical policies, leaving other parts of the UK to catch up. It is in the interests of all that they do so because a minimum price will be truly effective only of it changes attitudes to alcohol. The potential to do so will be undermined if England continues to ignore the harm caused by rock-bottom prices.