Supermarket giant Tesco today said it wanted to work with the British government on new laws to ensure the “responsible pricing” of alcohol.
The move comes as The British Medical Association (BMA) was later expected to urge ministers to take greater action to cut alcohol abuse.
There is widespread concern that cut-price alcohol is fuelling the problems of binge-drinking and alcohol-related crime and disorder.
Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket, says the government must deal with the issue because supermarkets are barred by competition laws from taking action together to raise prices, while customers would simply go elsewhere if they acted unilaterally.
The supermarkets have faced criticism for selling alcohol at heavily reduced prices – sometimes below the wholesale cost – as a “loss leader”.
Campaign groups have also expressed outrage that in some cases alcohol can be cheaper than bottled water.
Tesco’s Chief Executive, Terry Leahy, has told British prime minister Gordon Brown that the supermarket is willing to work with others in the industry, as well as government experts and the police to tackle concern over lower-priced alcohol.
Executive Director for Corporate and Legal Affairs, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, said it was too simplistic to blame binge drinking on price alone.
“However, supermarkets do sell a lot of alcohol and we accept that we have a role to play in addressing the problem of anti-social drinking,” she said.
“We need to better understand the impact of price and be mindful of the fact that the vast majority of people consume alcohol responsibly and shouldn’t be penalised for the actions of less responsible drinkers.
“To get this understanding and move forward, all shops that sell alcohol need to act together – and this is where we are being held back by the law.
“Competition law prevents businesses discussing anything to do with price with each other and imposes severe penalties on anyone who breaches it.
“The only safe solution is for the government to initiate and lead these discussions and to bring forward legislative proposals which Tesco and others in our industry can support.
“Such proposals would have to apply to all retailers of alcohol otherwise they would be ineffective as those looking for cheap alcohol would simply shop with lower-priced operators not covered by the legislation, undermining our business and achieving nothing.
“If ministers act we pledge our support in helping to develop proposals and make the legislation work.”
The BMA was today expected to call for a raft of measures to be introduced to stop alcohol abuse, particularly among youngsters and teenage girls, spiralling out of control.
UK teenagers are among the most likely in Europe to report heavy drinking and being intoxicated.
The BMA was expected to call for higher taxes on alcoholic drinks, an end to “irresponsible” promotional activities, and a reduction in the drink-driving limit.
It believes price increases can result in reduced consumption and that longer opening hours are associated with increased alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems.
Since 1997, taxes on wine and beer in the UK have only increased in line with inflation while taxes on spirits have not increased at all.
Earlier this month, Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) called on the country to wake up to the epidemic of binge-drinking among teenagers and the misery it causes.
He condemned the drinks industry for targeting the young and exporting its “negative costs onto the streets, hospitals and into the criminal justice system”.
The warning came after a spate of high-profile crimes involving underage drinkers, including the murder of Garry Newlove.
British home secretary Jacqui Smith has also announced that police will have tougher powers to confiscate booze from underage drinkers.
And government-commissioned auditors KPMG will carry out a review of whether pubs, clubs, off-licenses and supermarkets are abiding by alcohol industry standards.
It will focus on cut-price drink promotions and a change in the law to force retailers to act responsibly has not been ruled out.
Figures released last month by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed alcohol-related deaths doubled between 1991 and 2006 (from 6.9 per 100,000 in 1991).
The number of actual deaths more than doubled from 4,144 in 1991 to 8,758 in 2006.