Public health experts in the North East have criticised the Government for failing to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol.
In an open letter to The Journal, 12 directors of public health in the region said the “Government’s delay in introducing a minimum unit price represents a blow to public health”.
Last month, it was announced that plans to introduce the measure were being shelved. Instead, Home Office minister Jeremy Browne introduced a ban on the sale of alcohol below the price of duty plus VAT.
But the move has angered health officials who believe it is essential to bring in a minimum unit price (MUP) to reduce problems caused by drink.
The letter adds: “This decision comes at a time when the evidence in support of MUP is getting stronger. We know it targets those people most in need – heavy drinkers and children who seek out strong, cheap alcohol.
“We know it saves lives, reduces hospital admissions and cuts crime while not affecting the price of a pint or glass of wine in a pub.
“Now we know it works in practice. Research indicates that in British Columbia in Canada a 10% increase in minimum price results in a 32% fall in wholly attributable deaths from alcohol. In contrast, the below-cost ban introduced by the Government is 50 times less effective than MUP and it will still be possible for our children to get their hands on a two-litre bottle of strong cider for £1.43.
“Put together with the recent decision not to introduce standardised packaging on cigarettes – which also leaves our children at risk – the Government’s delay in introducing MUP represents a blow to public health.”
More than a year ago, the Government made public its National Alcohol Strategy, which included the proposal to introduce a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol.
The letter goes on: “When the Government included measures to address the problems caused by the wide availability of cheap alcohol in its National Alcohol Strategy back in March 2012, the North East had more reasons than most to celebrate. However, it seems that our celebrations were premature.”
The Home Office has insisted a minimum unit price for alcohol will remain under consideration, but will not be taken forward as policy at this time.
Mr Browne said: “There has been much speculation about the Government’s plans in relation to minimum unit pricing. That policy will remain under consideration, but it will not be proceeded with at this time.
“We do not yet have enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms associated with problem drinking – this is a crucial point – without penalising people who drink responsibly. We will tackle the most egregious examples of cheap alcohol by banning sales of alcohol below the level of alcohol duty plus value-added tax.
“That will come into effect in England and Wales no later than the spring of 2014, and will stop the worst instances of deep discounting that result in alcohol being sold cheaply and harmfully.
“It will no longer be legal to sell a can of ordinary-strength lager for less than about 40p.”
The directors of public health welcomed Public Health England’s commitment to look again at the evidence because “we believe it can only come to one conclusion – that unlike banning sales at below-cost price, minimum unit price will make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable people in the North East”.