A minimum price per unit of alcohol will be introduced in England alongside plans to ban the sale of multi-buy discount deals, Prime Minister David Cameron said today.
David Cameron said he was making “no excuses” for clamping down on the country’s drink problem but admitted minimum pricing would not be “universally popular”.
The move was met with opposition from the drinks industry, with some accusing Mr Cameron of being “seriously misguided”.
Retailers and drinks firms said the policy was also at odds with the “responsibility deal” between alcohol companies and the Government, overseen by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
Mr Lansley is known to be against tighter regulation of the sector and has previously described minimum pricing as an “absurd” tool for tackling drink abuse.
Today’s Alcohol Strategy is intended to “turn the tide” against irresponsible drinking, which costs the UK an estimated £21bn (€25bn) a year.
It sets out plans for a minimum unit price, possibly 40p, bans the sale of multi-buy discount deals and introduces a “zero tolerance” approach to drunken behaviour in A&E departments.
It also suggests a late-night levy to get pubs and clubs to help pay for policing and improved powers to stop serving alcohol to drunks.
The Government hopes minimum pricing will spell the end of cheap white ciders, spirits and super-strength lagers.
It also believes it could tackle “pre-loading” – when people drink cheap alcohol at home before heading to a pub or nightclub.
Under the plans, buy-one-get-one-free deals could be banned but half-price deals could stay.
The Government intends to consult on the strategy over the summer with a view to introducing legislation as soon as possible.
Mr Cameron said: “Binge drinking isn’t some fringe issue, it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country.
“The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities.
“My message is simple. We can’t go on like this. We have to tackle the scourge of violence caused by binge drinking. And we have to do it now.”
He said the Government would tackle the problem “from every angle”, adding there would be a “real effort to get to grips with the root cause” of the problem.
“That means coming down hard on cheap alcohol.
“When beer is cheaper than water, it’s just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in the pub.”
Mr Cameron said a minimum price would, for the first time, make it illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than a set price per unit.
“We’re consulting on the actual price, but if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year by the end of the decade.
“This isn’t about stopping responsible drinking, adding burdens on business or some new kind of stealth tax – it’s about fast immediate action where universal change is needed.
“And let’s be clear. This will not hurt pubs. A pint is two units. If the minimum price is 40p a unit, it won’t affect the price of a pint.
“In fact, pubs may benefit by making the cheap alternatives in supermarkets more expensive.
“Of course, I know this won’t be universally popular. But the responsibility of being in Government isn’t always about doing the popular thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Today’s announcement from Downing Street came just after Mr Lansley made his own announcement on the responsibility deal, saying the voluntary agreement with firms “works”.
He said alcohol companies and retailers had pledged to cut a billion units of alcohol from their drinks over the next few years.
“The responsibility deal shows what can be achieved for individuals and families when we work together with industry,” he said.
“We know this is an ambitious challenge to work in this way but our successes so far clearly demonstrate it works.”
The British Retail Consortium’s food director, Andrew Opie, said minimum pricing was effectively a “tax on responsible drinkers”.
He added: “David Cameron is seriously misguided.
“It’s simplistic to imagine a minimum price is some sort of silver bullet solution to irresponsible drinking.
“It’s a myth to suggest that supermarkets are the problem or that a pub is somehow a safer drinking environment.”
Mr Opie said retailers had been “active, founding participants in the Government’s own health responsibly deal”.
Andrew Cowan, country director of Diageo GB, whose brands include Smirnoff, Baileys, Tanqueray and Guinness, said the move went against the Government’s responsibility deal.
“Diageo has consistently supported this Government and its predecessors to tackle alcohol misuse and believes measures such as stricter law enforcement in addressing drunk and disorderly behaviour will work.
“However, the intended introduction of pricing intervention is misguided and appears to run counter to the responsibility deal set out by this Government.”
He said the move would hit consumers hard, particularly those on low incomes.
“There is no credible evidence from anywhere in the world that it is an effective measure in reducing alcohol-related harm.”
Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, which represents drinks producers, said: “For this strategy to be successful, it must not penalise the vast majority who drink responsibly or unfairly burden businesses that are helping Government tackle alcohol misuse through the responsibility deal partnership.
“It is vital that these proposals do not undermine this partnership and the good progress that is being made.”
Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: “This is a victory for common sense.
“We cannot carry on with a situation where it’s cheaper to buy cans of lager than a can of Coke.
“We fully support the Government in taking action to clamp down on booze at pocket money prices and protect the health of our children and young people.
“All the research shows there is a link between price and consumption and we know that lives can be saved if a minimum price is introduced.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians and the Alcohol Health Alliance, added: “Healthcare workers who struggle every day to cope with the impact of our nation’s unhealthy drinking will welcome tough new policies in areas such as price and licensing that are based on evidence and should bring about real benefits.”
Chief Constable Jon Stoddart, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on alcohol, said: “Week in, week out in town centres across the country the police have to deal with the consequences of cheap alcohol and irresponsible drinking.
“I welcome the Government’s new approach that will help reduce the availability of cheap alcohol, give communities a greater say over licensing in their area and reduce pressure on the police.”