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Minimum alcohol price needed - Neil

Evidence that alcohol costs as little as 20p a unit is proof that minimum pricing is needed to battle Scotland's unhealthy relationship with drink, the Health Secretary has said.

Alex Neil spoke out days before the Scottish Government's controversial policy, which aims to set a 50p floor price per unit, is due to be tested again at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

He argued it is not right that a man can buy a week's worth of the "sensible" amount of alcohol for less than £5.

But some in the drinks industry say the policy will not tackle alcohol abuse effectively and could put up trade barriers around the world.

Mr Neil said: "I am absolutely determined to tackle the problems caused by Scotland's difficult relationship with alcohol.

"Each week on average in Scotland, alcohol misuse is responsible for more than 20 deaths and 700 hospital admissions. Being able to buy 20 units of alcohol for the change in your pocket is just unacceptable. It shows that this kind of high-strength alcohol - the type which does much of the damage - has become far too cheap in Scotland.

"Time and time again the research proves that affordability is the key factor in the misuse of alcohol and that the most effective way to tackle this is by setting a minimum unit price. This is about targeting the cheap drink that causes so much harm within communities, often in the most deprived areas of Scotland.

"Minimum pricing would begin saving lives within months of its introduction and while it is regrettable that the policy is being subject to delays as a result of the legal challenge, the Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to bringing in legislation that would set the minimum price for a unit of alcohol at 50p."

He pointed to research showing it is possible to buy three litres of branded high-strength cider, around 22 units, for £4.50.

Twelve cans of lager - at 21 units - are being sold for £8, while 26 units of supermarket brand vodka is available for less than £11, the Scottish Government says.

A legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland was rejected in May last year.

The association appealed against that judgment, pitting the two sides against each other again in court this week.

The SWA says minimum pricing is a regressive policy that hits responsible drinkers, particularly those on lower incomes.

It also notes that the UK Government decided against pursuing a similar policy because of a lack of "concrete evidence".

The policy also breaches EU trading rules, the SWA argues.

Rosemary Gallagher of the SWA said: " Minimum unit pricing is an unfair and untargeted policy that penalises responsible drinkers, especially those on lower incomes. It impacts poorer people in society and will have little effect on the highest earners who make up the majority of hazardous and harmful drinkers.

"The Scottish Government's own report says 'the main driver of increasing affordability has been rising disposable incomes'. But while affordability may have risen, alcohol-related harms and deaths have been falling in Scotland in recent years. Deaths have fallen 36% from a peak in 2003. This would suggest measures in place are already working. And the Government's figures also show that alcohol prices have risen faster than inflation, by some 24%.

" Figures published just this week by NHS Scotland show that in 2012/13, there were an estimated 94,630 alcohol-related primary care consultations by 48,420 patients, a substantial fall from 109,170 consultations by 57,470 patients in 2011/12."

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw questioned why it has taken "so long to get anywhere with minimum pricing".

He said: "It's incredible to think the SNP wants to create a new nation state in the space of 18 months, but can't get a single piece of legislation relating to the price of beer through in that time frame."

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