Legislation designed to set a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland will be blocked by opposition parties at Holyrood after intensive lobbying by the drinks industry.
The minority Scottish National party government proposed setting a minimum price on Thursday, as part of plans to tackle drink-fuelled violence and health problems that ministers estimate cost the country £2.5bn a year.
Labour, however, has decided to join the other main opposition parties in opposing minimum pricing.
Other measures proposed by the Scottish government – such as banning irresponsible promotions that encourage excessive drinking – are likely to be approved.
Three years ago, Scotland became the first part of the UK to outlaw smoking in public places, and the SNP had hoped setting a minimum alcohol price would create a similar public health precedent – a prospect that concerned the drinks industry.
The Scotch Whisky Association said minimum pricing was likely to breach both European Union and international trade law. It also felt that such a measure would have damaging consequences for Scotch whisky’s £3bn-a-year export trade, since other countries could then justify imposing discriminatory restrictions on whisky by citing Scotland’s own violation of international rules.
The association said a viable alternative to minimum pricing would be to consider measures to tackle shops’ “loss-leading” sales of alcohol.
Nicola Sturgeon, the health secretary, described the alcohol bill as a rare chance to tackle Scotland’s drink problems. She criticised the opposition parties, saying they had failed to put forward alternatives.
She said: “While we have never said minimum pricing is a silver bullet, all the expert opinion agrees that it can have a major impact as part of our wider package of measures.”
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader, said a minimum cost per unit of alcohol would make supermarkets richer, fail to target some drinks that caused problems and potentially break EU law. He plans to set up a commission to look at alternative pricing mechanisms, such as a sales tax.
Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservatives’ deputy leader, said blanket minimum pricing had been discredited. He called for targeted increases on so-called problem drinks such as alcopops and strong cider.
“The SNP’s policy is probably illegal, penalises responsible drinkers and will cause immense damage to the Scotch whisky industry,” he said.
Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, criticised ministers for failing to state what the minimum price would be. The SNP mentioned 40p a unit during consultations, but said the precise level would be set later by statutory regulations.
Mr Brown said: “We need to stop tolerating drunkenness, alcohol-fuelled violence and routine excess of alcohol – especially in public places.”