Scotland’s minimum unit price for alcohol could be in place at the start of May next year, Scotland’s Health Secretary has announced.
Shona Robison revealed the proposed 2018 implementation date for the controversial policy which was last week given the green light by Supreme Court justices.
While MSPs in the Scottish Parliament had voted through legislation for a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol in 2012, a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), who argued the policy breached European laws, delayed it being brought in.
The case went to the highest court in Scotland and the European Court of Justice before ending up at the UK Supreme Court.
The SWA said on Wednesday they accepted the decision, and Ms Robison confirmed to MSPs that the organisation will pay the Scottish Government’s legal costs.
Scotland will be the first country in the world to introduce a minimum unit pricing for alcohol, with Ms Robison saying this could be in place in less than six months’ time.
She said: ” Minimum unit pricing of alcohol has been delayed far too long. During the court cases, lives have been lost. That is why I will move to implement as soon as is practicable.”
A consultation on the regulations which will set the minimum unit price will begin in December, with ministers proposing that the order setting the minimum price will be laid before the Scottish Parliament at the start of March 2018.
Ms Robison said the order would state the Scottish Government’s intended implementation date of May 1 2018.
The Health Secretary said: ” Next May, we take a huge step forwards in tackling one of Scotland’s enduring health harms.
“Minimum unit pricing of alcohol can help to turn the tide on alcohol harm, and the 1st of May will be a landmark moment.”
Ms Robison confirmed that 50p remains the intended minimum unit price for alcohol, but said that given more than five years had passed since Holyrood approved the legislation there would be a consultation on this.
She highlighted the ” high and enduring levels of alcohol-related harm Scotland experiences” as she urged all political parties to unite to “tackle the scourge of cheap, high-strength alcohol causing so much damage across our nation”.
Alcohol misuse costs Scotland an estimated £3.6 billion a year – the equivalent of £900 for every adult.
New figures from the NHS showed alcohol resulted in 36,235 admissions to hospital in 2016-17, an increase of 2% on the previous year.
Separate figures published in August showed there were 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016, a rise of 10% from 2015.
Ms Robison said: “On average, alcohol misuse causes about 697 hospital admissions and 24 deaths a week in Scotland. Let me be clear – that is wholly unacceptable.”
Minimum unit pricing will target the “low price, high alcohol content products”, which can currently be sold for as little as 18p per unit, the Health Secretary said.
But MSPs questioned whether 50p was still the right level to set the minimum price at.
Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw asked the Health Secretary if she was confident this was still an “appropriate” level.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Wou ldn’t it be advisable to revise the price level? It was 50p we set before – would it not be more suitable to set something in the order of 60p to reflect inflation and other factors that have changed in that very long march towards the delivery of this policy?”
Ms Robison said: ” We are going to consult and we will hear the views of that consultation but we believe there is very much a lot of evidence for maintaining the 50p price.”
She added: ” We will listen to the consultation responses but that consultation will go out still advocating the Scottish Government’s position of a 50p minimum unit price.”