MINISTERS will consider a major increase in the minimum unit price of alcohol following a review of the landmark policy.

Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing in May 2018, putting a floor price of 50p on every unit of alcohol sold in shops.

Its aim was to cut alcohol-related deaths by targeting products with a high alcohol content that were previously sold cheaply and favoured by problem drinkers.

A review of the 50p price - set in the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 - should have begun in May 2020 but was pushed back because of the pandemic. Doctors and campaigners want the minimum price to rise to 65p with the higher cost adding around £4 to a small bottle of spirits or £1.35 to a bottle of white wine.

Public Health Scotland is due to complete its assessment of the policy next year.

Health minister Maree Todd last week said evidence so far suggested the measure had helped reduce alcohol deaths in Scotland and that Scots were drinking less.

"Minimum unit pricing was introduced in 2018 and we are in the final year of our five-year evaluation period. Twelve months after MUP was introduced, we saw a decrease of 2 per cent in alcohol sales in the off-licence trade. We also saw a decrease of 10 per cent in alcohol-specific deaths—the largest decrease since 2012," she said.

Last year a coalition of doctors and charities wrote to the Scottish Government demanding an increase in alcohol prices immediately to counteract a spike in deaths.

The group of 28 organisations including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs called for price to be raised to 65p, highlighting modelling showing that this could save twice as many lives.

In a letter to Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Ms Todd, the organisations said this has “undermined the initial health gains made”.

“Now is the time for the minimum price to be uprated. It is widely acknowledged that the current 50p per unit has likely been eroded by inflation over the last nine years,” they added referring to the current level being set in 2012.

Some organisations want the government to update the legislation to allow the price per unit to rise with inflation in what they have described as "an automatic uplift" rather than increased under a regular review.

However, Ms Todd told MSPs she wasn't convinced about such a move and favoured regular reviews rather than the price automatically rising with inflation.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said: "We’ve seen that minimum unit pricing can have a positive effect. In the two years following the introduction of MUP there was a reduction in alcohol consumption, fewer deaths from alcohol and decreases in hospital admissions from alcohol-related liver conditions.

"Unfortunately, inflation since the policy was approved by the Parliament in 2012 means we’re likely not seeing the full benefits of this life-saving policy. We need to off-set the effects of inflation, and adjust the minimum unit price to a level that will save more lives and prevent a new generation from developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Alcohol Focus Scotland urge the Scottish Government to take action and raise the minimum unit price to at least 65p."

The 2012 legislation was passed in Holyrood in 2012 but not introduced until 2018 due to a lengthy legal battle led by the Scotch Whisky Association.

In November 2017, the UK's Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Scotch Whisky Association's case arguing that minimum pricing was a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics, at the Institute of Economic Affairs,was opposed to an increase and said the policy should be scrapped.

"A minimum price of 65p would affect two-thirds of all the alcohol sold in the off-trade and put a further squeeze on ordinary people at a time when inflation is rising to double digits. The Scottish Government could abandon this failed experiment without losing a penny in tax revenue. It should certainly not double down," he said.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Work on reviewing the level of the minimum unit price (MUP) is underway. It is important this work is carried out thoroughly to ensure any change to the level has a robust evidence base.

“We know the pandemic has changed drinking behaviour, no more so than for those who were already drinking heavily before the pandemic.  There is more work to be done to better understand the continuing impact of the pandemic on alcohol harm. 

“It is too early to know whether the changed drinking behaviours during the pandemic are temporary or not.  This will be relevant for the review of the price.”