Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon says the clampdown will help Scotland achieve a 'cultural shift' in its unhealthy attitudes to alcohol. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
Cut-price wine, beer and vodka will be outlawed in Scotland from as early as April next year after the Scottish parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill to introduce a 50p minimum price foralcohol.
The new measures setting the first legally-binding minimum price within the European Union are expected to get royal assent later next month after the Tories, Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats voted alongside the Scottish National party at Holyrood.
The legislation– which could be followed by similar price controls for England and Wales – will mean that whisky will cost a minimum of £14 a bottle, average strength wine will cost £4.69, four cans of own brand supermarket lager £3.52 and standard strength vodka £13.13 a bottle.
It will also finally stop supermarkets, shops and pubs, which are already legally prevented in Scotland from selling alcohol at bulk discounts or two for one offers, from offering single bottle cut-price promotions which push the cost of the drink under the 50p a unit level.
Labour, which had earlier signalled it could finally support the bill, became the only party to abstain after failing to win the Scottish government's support for new measures to claw back extra profits the supermarkets will now earn from higher prices.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish health secretary, is now braced for possible legal challenges from the drinks industry or overseas producers which could prevent the law coming into force from 1 April next year as planned.
The Scottish government must notify the European commission about the new legislation and the legal basis for the policy within weeks. The commission will begin a three-month consultation on the measures which is expected to quickly trigger legal action by its opponents.
Sturgeon's advisers believe the commissioners will accept the price control is legal under EU law because it is a proportionate measure which will have a significant positive impact on Scotland's health and crime levels.
She said the new measures would help Scotland achieve a "cultural shift" in its unhealthy attitudes to alcohol.
"This policy will save lives – it's as simple as that. It is time to turn the tide of alcohol misuse that for too long has been crippling our country," she said. "Minimum pricing will kickstart a change by addressing a fundamental part of our alcohol culture – the availability of high-strength, low-cost alcohol."
However, individual drinks companies or overseas suppliers whose sales are based on cheap prices are now expected to challenge the measures in the Scottish courts and the UK supreme court, potentially delaying the new measures until 2014 or later.
Critics insist the legislation has an unjustified impact on responsible and less well-off drinkers, is illegal under EU and global competition laws and would also ruin the Scottish whisky industry's efforts to counter price controls and high tariffs in overseas markets. The drinks industry in the rest of the UK is threatening similar action if David Cameron presses ahead with similar measures for England and Wales.
Whisky is Scotland's single largest and most valuable export, worth £4.2bn last year, and the Scotch Whisky Association has insisted that minimum pricing is likely to be illegal, breaching European and global rules on free trade and competition.
Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said minimum unit pricing (MUP) "has consistently been found to be illegal in Europe. It was first ruled to be a barrier to trade by the European court of justice more than 30 years ago. No doubt those opposed to MUP across Europe will draw on this case law in the coming months.
"We expect legal challenges to emerge once the Scottish government notifies its proposals to the European commission. We hope the UK government will take due note and drop its own proposals for minimum pricing of alcohol."
With alcohol abuse and alcohol related crime estimated to cost several thousand early deaths a year in Scotland, a study by health experts at Sheffield university estimated that a 50p minimum price would save about 60 lives in the first year and 300 within a decade. The cumulative social and economic benefits would see a "harm reduction" worth £942m within 10 years.