By Elisabeth O'Leary
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland is to become one of the first countries in the world to introduce minimum alcohol pricing in an attempt to tackle a worsening public health problem with binge drinking.
Britain's Supreme Court announced the landmark move that ends a five-year legal battle in which the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the industry lobby, lost an appeal.
Scotland is famous for whisky production but the price change will target cheap, strong alcohol favored by binge drinkers, experts said.
The British drinks industry is already grappling with an uncertain outlook after Britain's exit from the European Union. The SWA called for government help to overcome trade barriers and protect jobs in Scotland.
Alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have risen 10 percent since 2015 and the government says Scotland's troubled relationship with drink is significantly worse than the rest of the UK. 17 percent more alcohol is sold per adult in Scotland than in England and Wales in 2016.
"Minimum unit pricing is effective because it targets the kind of drinking most likely to lead to the greatest harm. The price of a pint in the pub won't change but the price of strong white ciders and own brand spirits that are mainly bought by dependent drinkers will rise markedly," said Alcohol Focus Scotland, a charity.
The Scottish government has prepared for the introduction of a minimum preferred price per unit of 50 pence ($0.66) per unit.
As a result, four 440 ml cans of 5 percent strength lager would cost at least 4.40 pounds, a 12 percent alcohol bottle of wine would cost at least 4.50 pounds, and a 70 cls bottle of whisky could not be sold for less than 14 pounds.
Earlier this year the Alcohol Health Alliance found the cheapest drink to be available at just 16p per unit in the UK.
"Given the clear and proven link between consumption and harm, minimum pricing is the most effective and efficient way to tackle the cheap, high-strength alcohol that causes so much damage to so many families," Scottish health minister Shona Robison said in a statement. The move would be introduced as quickly as possible, she said.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said: "Minimum pricing is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim."
Pub retailer and brewer Greene King said it welcomed the decision and hoped the UK government would look again at the benefits of minimum pricing in England.
C&C Group which makes Tennent's lager, also welcomed the move and urged other brewers to support it. "We are concerned about the availability of strong, cheap alcohol and its correlation with harmful drinking that causes misery across Scotland," it said.
The SWA had argued that there are alternative pricing measures which are less disruptive of free trade and less distortive of competition which were equally effective. It said it accepted the ruling, however.
"We will now look to the Scottish and UK Governments to support the industry against the negative effects of trade barriers being raised in overseas markets that discriminate against scotch whisky as a consequence of minimum pricing," SWA's Chief Executive Karen Betts said in a statement.
On average, alcohol misuse causes about 670 Scottish hospital admissions and 24 deaths a week, almost 1.5 times higher than in the early 1980s.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)