The prospect of minimum unit alcohol pricing in Scotland hangs in the balance after a ruling from the European Court of Justice, which stated it would breach EU laws if less restrictive tax measures could be introduced instead.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) insisted that the ruling “settles the EU law issues once and for all” but stressed that the final decision now lay with the Court of Session in Edinburgh.

Yesterday’s ruling by the ECJ said it considered the “effect of the Scottish legislation is significantly to restrict the market, and this might be avoided by the introduction of a tax measure designed to increase the price of alcohol instead of a measure imposing a minimum price per unit of alcohol”.

Sturgeon reacted angrily to claims that the ECJ had ended any hope of introducing MUP in Scotland adding “it sets out tests national court needs to apply. We think those tests can be passed”.

The case was sparked by a SWA appeal against the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce MUP in 2012.

David Frost, chief executive of the SW, said: “This ruling opens the way to moving the debate on and allowing us to address alcohol misuse with practical measures that actually work. Alcohol-related deaths have fallen by a third over the last decade in Scotland, which suggests we are already on the right path. We remain committed to working closely with the Scottish Government and everyone else with an interest.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, said: “Measures that stall or avoid the introduction of minimum unit pricing are welcome but this is likely to be undermined should additional tax burdens be placed on pubs and bars. We have consistently said that we would like to work with both national and local authorities and we urge the Scottish Government to investigate partnership schemes and work with the sector to tackle alcohol-related harms instead.

“The ALMR has always argued that minimum unit pricing alone is unlikely to prove useful in tackling government health objectives but would increase the burden on licensed hospitality businesses. If the Scottish Government is committed to tackling any perceived health harms due to alcohol, then a better course of action would be to focus on controlling unrestricted off-trade promotions.”