Scotland will enter a new age of temperance under radical plans aimed at curbing endemic drinking in a country with some of the worst alcohol abuse rates in the world.
Ministers unveiled new plans yesterday which will set a minimum price for drinks, based on the number of units they contain, and a ban on promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free offers. If the plans are approved, Scotland will become the first country in Europe to fix a minimum price on drinks.
South of the border, ministers have put the brakes on anti-drinking proposals out of fear that the already struggling pub industry will be hit even harder during the recession. But the Scottish Nationalist Party, which made the proposals, has vowed to push ahead with its temperance measures in a country where alcohol abuse now outstrips heart problems as the main source of hospital admissions.
Under the new rules, retailers will be obligated to stop alcohol being sold for "pocket money prices", with cut-price offers banned. The display and marketing of alcohol will also be restricted to specific areas within off-sales premises and new legislation will introduce a "social responsibility fee" for retailers who fail to clamp down on excessive under-age drinking.
Under pressure from student groups, publicans and retail groups, the SNP backed down from a proposal which would have meant only those over the age of 21 would be allowed to buy alcohol in off-licences. They also decided against implementing an initiative where supermarkets and off-licences would have had to set up separate alcohol checkouts.
But if the new laws are passed, local constabularies will be able to enforce regional age limits in areas where youth drinking is a major problem.
Alcohol abuse is thought to cost Scotland's economy more than £2.25bn every year. New figures released by the NHS last month revealed that Scotland has the eighth highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world.
According to the statistics, every person over 16 drinks an average of 23 units of alcohol every week. That is the equivalent of 570 pints of beer, or 125 bottles of wine, or 42 bottles of vodka a year. More than 1,500 Scots die from alcohol related problems every year.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's Health Secretary, said yesterday: "Plummeting prices and aggressive promotion have led to a surge in consumption, causing and adding to health problems ranging from liver and heart diseases to diabetes, obesity, dementia and cancers."
SNP ministers declined to say what their minimum price per unit of alcohol would be, but research at the University of Sheffield has shown that fixing prices at 40p per unit led to a 2.6 per cent reduction in overall consumption and a 4 per cent reduction among young drinkers.
The proposals have been heavily criticised by retail groups and the drinks industry, who believe that setting minimum prices will penalise ordinary, law-abiding drinkers while failing to tackle the root causes of alcohol abuse.
David Poley, the chief executive of the Portman Group, the foundation set up by the drinks industry to promote responsible alcohol consumption, said yesterday: "The Scottish government is not listening to reason. These plans will punish all drinkers while only scratching at the surface of our drinking culture. People who drink to get drunk would not be influenced by these measures. We should be targeting the harmful minority through better education and effective law enforcement."
Whisky manufacturers reacted with fury to the minimum price plan, claiming it was likely to be illegal under EU and international law. And they warned it may backfire by encouraging other countries to bring in "discriminatory" restrictions on Scotch whisky, damaging a £3bn-a-year export trade.
Gavin Hewitt, the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: "We agree that attitudes to alcohol in Scotland need to change, but minimum pricing is not the answer."
Health officials across the country are increasingly concerned that Britain is becoming more and more addicted to alcohol. In 2002, approximately 475,000 hospital admissions were alcohol related, but this figure almost doubled to 811,000 in 2006.
The British Medical Association believes more than a quarter of all drink-related deaths could be prevented by a 10 per cent increase in duty. Their proposal, however, is bitterly opposed by the drinks industry.