STRONG support for a minimum unit price for alcohol in England was voiced at a public debate in Northumberland last night.
A panel of experts said the move would save lives, cut hospital admissions, reduce violent crime and anti-social behaviour and cut the enormous costs faced by the NHS as a result of excessive drinking.
Representatives from the health service, alcohol campaign group Balance, Northumbria Police, the pub trade and the Federation of Small Businesses all put the case for a minimum unit price to reduce the harm caused by cheap drink offers at supermarkets and off-licences.
About 50 people attended the public meeting in Morpeth Town Hall, which was organised by the county council ahead of a Government consultation on the issue.
Coalition ministers are committed to bringing in a minimum unit price and next month’s consultation will examine at what level it should be set. The Scottish Government has already agreed to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit next year in an attempt to tackle binge drinking.
The issue hit the local headlines last month when the Labour group on Northumberland County Council called for taxpayers’ money to be spent on the promotion of cross-border “booze cruising”.
They called for a campaign advertising towns like Berwick, Alnwick and Morpeth as destinations for people from Scotland looking to beat next year’s price increase and stock up on drink.
Labour councillors said it was a golden opportunity for Northumberland to boost its economy, but the suggestion was widely criticised as irresponsible by political opponents.
At last night’s meeting Labour group leader Grant Davey defended the suggestion claiming it had been about giving the county’s tourism economy a valuable shot in the arm.
“We tried to raise the economic status of tourism in Northumberland. For us it was an economic issue about raising trade, in the same way that Newcastle benefits from visitors from Norway, and similar to what happens at Dover/Calais and in northern and southern Ireland,” he said.
Coun Davey said the Northumberland Labour group would be following whatever the party line was on minimum pricing following the forthcoming Labour conference.
Prof Sue Milner, the county’s director of public health and protection, told the meeting that more than 60,000 people in Northumberland are either heavy/dependent or are drinking at levels which are increasingly dangerous to their health and well being. She said there are many ways to tackle alcohol-related harm, but increasing the price and reducing the availability of alcohol was one of them. “It is one of the strongest evidence-based interventions we have,” she added.
Colin Shevills, chief executive of Balance, said: “There is no magic bullet to deal with alcohol harm but minimum unit pricing is a very important tool.” Mr Shevills claimed introducing a minimum price per unit of 50p would only result in a moderate drinker paying an extra 28p a week for alcohol. However, it would reduce alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions by almost 98,000 a year, cut crime by an estimated 45,800 offences a year and boost productivity by saving an estimated 297,000 days a year from absenteeism.