Scotland is set to become the first country in the world with a minimum price for alcohol sales after the UK’s highest court rejected an appeal from Scotch whisky manufacturers.

Supreme Court justices unanimously dismissed the appeal brought by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and other drinks manufacturers, who argued that the policy was “disproportionate” and illegal under European law.

It brings to a close a five year legal struggle over the Scottish Government’s plan to introduce a 50p minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol, in a bid to curb harmful drinking of cheap, super strong alcohol.

The judgement, handed down by justice Lord Mance, said that increasing alcohol price by an excise duty or Vat increase would not be “equally effective” at targeting cheap alcohol.

“The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the appeal. Lord Mance gives the judgement, with which the remaining six justices agree,” the ruling said. “The 2012 Act does not breach EU law. Minimum pricing is a legitimate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

The appeal, by the SWA and alcohol producer bodies, spiritsEUROPE and Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV), had argued that the MUP policy would fall foul of EU trade laws and its objectives could be achieved by an excise duty or tax increase.

Representing the SWA at a July hearing in London, Aidan O’Neill QC told the justices: “We point out that there are a whole number of ways in which pricing can legitimately be used in accordance with EU law to achieve those aims.” 

But the Supreme Court said EU law makes provisions for law which “protects human life and health”.

After consulting with the Court of Justice of the European Union it said: “The Supreme Court concludes that an excise or tax would not constitute and equally effective way of achieving the regime’s objectives.

“In agreement with the Lord Advocate, minimum pricing targets the health hazards of cheap alcohol and the groups most affected, in a way that an increase in excise or VAT would not.”

VAT increase “would be felt across the board”, the court found, while “minimum pricing is easier to understand and simpler to enforce”.

This ends five years of legal challenges and delay since the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 was first passed by Scottish Government to address a health crisis responsible for 1,265 deaths in 2016, an increase of 10 per cent on the year before.

Scottish Government says this is linked to alcohol being 60% more affordable than in the 1980s, with wide ranging costs to public health.

Its current MUP proposal of a 50p per unit charge means four 440ml cans of five per cent strength lager would cost at least £4.40, a 12 per cent bottle of wine would be at least £4.50 and a 70cl bottle of whisky must cost at least £14.

The Scottish Government hailed today’s unanimous ruling, which it said had “global significance”. 

Scottish Health secretary Shona Robison will set out the timetable for implementation to MSPs later today, but said of the judgement: “This is a historic and far-reaching judgment and a landmark moment in our ambition to turn around Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol.

“In a ruling of global significance, the UK Supreme Court has unanimously backed our pioneering and life-saving alcohol pricing policy.”

Ms Robison said this was the end of a “long journey” and in the past five years the Scottish public have been able to buy alcohol as cheap as 18p per unit.

“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.

Karen Betts, Scotch Whisky Association chief executive, said: “We accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on minimum unit pricing (MUP) of alcohol in Scotland. Looking ahead, the Scotch Whisky industry will continue to work in partnership with the government and the voluntary sector to promote responsible drinking and to tackle alcohol-related harm.

“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, and to argue for fair competition on our behalf.  This is vital in order that the jobs and investment the industry provides in Scotland are not damaged. At home, we hope to see an objective assessment of the impact of MUP.”

David Cameron’s coalition government scrapped plans for an English minimum pricing plan in 2013, and health leaders said today’s judgement should be cause to restart action.

Additional reporting by PA