Alcohol campaigners in the North East have reacted with anger at the Government’s decision to shelve plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol.
The Government announced yesterday that it had dropped plans to introduce the measure, which health activists say is proven to save lives, cut crime and reduce hospital admissions.
Instead, Home Office minister Jeremy Browne introduced a ban on the sale of alcohol below the price of duty plus VAT.
A consultation document last year floated a base price of 45p per unit in England and Wales, but Mr Browne said there was not enough “concrete evidence” that the move would reduce the level of problem drinking without hitting those who drink responsibly.
Mr Browne also ruled out a ban on multi-buy promotions due to a “lack of convincing evidence” that it would have a significant effect on consumption.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, said: “We’re bitterly disappointed by the announcement. Without doubt it will cost lives across our region, while failing to cut alcohol-related crime and reduce the burden on our already overstretched hospitals.
“Despite Government suggestions to the contrary, the evidence base behind the introduction of a minimum unit price is overwhelming.
“Six countries have introduced minimum unit pricing for alcohol and we’re beginning to see significant benefits. In Canada alone a 10% price increase resulted in a 32% fall in alcohol related deaths.”
New research published yesterday by the University of Sheffield demonstrated that banning below-cost selling would have very little impact on alcohol consumption.
It could reduce overall consumption by 0.04% – less than half a pint of beer, per drinker, per year – and will affect just 1.3% of all alcohol units sold.
Under the new policy, the average price of alcohol sold by supermarkets would be expected to rise by just 0.1%. For example, beers at 4% ABV could still be sold for 40p per 440ml can, a 700ml bottle of spirits at 40% for £9.49 and a two litre bottle of strong cider at 7.5% for as little as £1.43.
Mr Shevills added: “Banning the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty plus VAT will make no impact whatsoever in tackling the damage done by alcohol sold at pocket money prices.
“The new policy will reduce approximately 15 alcohol related deaths, 500 hospital admissions and 900 alcohol related crimes a year. A MUP of 45p would be up to 50 times more impactful.
“The Prime Minister, in his forward to the Alcohol Strategy, recognised that some policies would be faced with opposition. He said the responsibility of Government isn’t always about doing the popular thing – it’s about doing the right thing. But the announcement is a huge step away from doing the right thing.”
In a statement to MPs, Mr Browne said the minimum unit price for alcohol will remain a policy under consideration, but will not be taken forward at this time.
He said the decision not to ban deals such as “buy one get one free” was taken because “there remains a lack of convincing evidence that it would have a significant effect in reducing consumption”.
The Prime Minister, who had previously championed the idea of a minimum unit price, insisted the measures announced would end the sale of very cheap alcohol.
Mr Cameron said: “We are introducing what is effectively a minimum price because we are saying it’s going to be illegal to sell alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT.
“So supermarkets or shops deeply discounting alcohol will be made illegal. That, will be a positive step.”
Coun David Stockdale, deputy cabinet member for public health, culture, leisure and libraries at Newcastle City Council said they would continue to work hard to reduce the harm called by excess drinking.
He said: “Putting a minimum unit price on alcohol would have given us a vital tool to halt the harm caused by alcohol, particularly amongst our young and our vulnerable.
“Alcohol harm costs our region £1bn ever year in public sector costs and lost productivity. Minimum unit pricing would have ensured that drink was no longer available at pocket money prices and provided a major incentive to people to drink less.”