The Scottish Government will “win hands down” if a challenge to its plans to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol ends up in the European Court, the Health Secretary predicted.
Alex Neil vowed the Scottish Government would “go the full mile” in contesting legal bids to halt the controversial measure.
He spoke out after it was reported five European wine-producing nations – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria – had branded minimum pricing for alcohol as illegal, unfair and ineffective.
They argue that minimum unit pricing breaches European free trade law by discriminating against imported alcohol products.
Mario Moniz Barreto, secretary general of the Portuguese Spirits Association, also insisted: “There is no demonstration that this measure will have an effect on the people it is trying to protect.”
But Mr Neil insisted the policy would “not be detrimental to trade either within Europe or internationally”.
Holyrood has already passed legislation which seeks to introduce a minimum price for alcohol of 50p per unit, but this has faced challenges from both European wine and spirit producers and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
In May, the Court of Session dismissed a legal challenge by the SWA to minimum pricing, saying then that “the measures were not incompatible with EU law”.
Mr Neil said the challenge from the other European countries was “based on the false premise that this is about trying to erect barriers to trade”.
Instead, he said that minimum pricing was “about dealing with the very specific problem we have of alcohol abuse in Scotland”.
The Health Secretary told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “Within Europe we are allowed, if the measure is proportional, to deal with a social problem, you are allowed to introduce measures like minimum unit pricing.
“Our argument is this is a very proportional measure to deal with a very substantial problem.”
He insisted that “the premise of these objections is entirely wrong” but said he would be “happy to engage in a charm offensive to explain to them that there is a social purpose to this measure, it is nothing to do with trying to restrict trade or trying to gain an unfair advantage”.
Mr Neil said that research had showed that “minimum unit pricing targets the cheep booze, the cheap cider, the cheap vodkas, the cheap gins, which are the real source of the problem in Scotland”.
In contrast, he said the policy would have “virtually no impact on quality products, like quality wines from France or Scotch whisky or quality vodka or things like that”.
Regarding the legal challenges, the Health Secretary said: “We’ve already had round one in the Court of Session with the Scotch Whisky Association and the Court of Session considered the European law aspect of this, as well as Scots law. We won hands down.”