The Scotch Whisky Association has landed a major punch in its fight to have minimum unit pricing on alcohol declared unlawful.

Yves Bot, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice, has said that minimum unit pricing may be illegal and should only be allowed where it can be shown that public health benefits can’t be delivered by other means such as taxation.

The SWA launched a legal challenge to Scottish government legislation to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, passed in 2012.

The opinion offered by Bot is not binding and the court is still to deliver its final judgement, a process that could take another six months.

Implementation of the law in Scotland was postponed pending a ruling on the legal challenge.

SWA chief executive David Frost said: “We welcome the advocate general’s opinion on minimum unit pricing of alcohol.

“The opinion encourages us in our long-held view that MUP is illegal when there are less trade-restrictive measures available. We await the Court of Justice’s final ruling.

“It remains important to address alcohol misuse with a range of other measures of proven effectiveness. We will continue to work closely with the Scottish government and other stakeholders on this.

“There is a long-term trend of falling alcohol-related deaths and harms in Scotland which suggests that measures in place are working.”

Paul Chase, director of licensed trade training body CPL and author of a book on alcohol and society, also welcomed the opinion of the advocate general.

He said: “No matter how many false statistics [the Scottish government] tried to crowbar into the junk-science mathematical models used to justify this measure, the advocate general has seen through this false prospectus and rejected government price- fixing of beverage alcohol.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “While we must await the final outcome of this legal process, the Scottish government remains certain that minimum unit pricing is the right measure for Scotland to reduce the harm that cheap, high-strength alcohol causes our communities.

“In recent weeks statistics have shown alcohol-related deaths are rising again and consumption may be rising again after a period of decline. We believe minimum unit pricing would save hundreds of lives in coming years and we will continue to vigorously make the case for this policy.”