Plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing have been announced by the coalition today, in a bid to tackle the country's problem with binge-drinking.
Proposals to set a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol for England and Wales were revealed in the Government's Alcohol Strategy: Choice, Challenge and Responsibility, after Prime Minister David Cameron said it was no longer acceptable that "beer is cheaper than water".
The sale of multi-buy discount deals in supermarkets also faces the axe, in order to save the UK an estimated £21b a year as a result of alcohol-relate crime and deaths.
The Alcohol Strategy, widely seen as the biggest public health intervention since the smoking ban was introduced by the Labour government in 2007, has been largely welcomed by the on-trade drinks industry, which argues that it long had to bear the brunt of people "pre-loading" on cheap alcohol bought from supermarkets and other retailers.
Nigel Wright, chief operating officer of managed pub group TCG, said: "Well-managed pubs and bars are the safest, most enjoyable and social places to enjoy a sensible drink. However, every town centre pub and bar operator has to deal with pre-loading. Groups of customers arrive at our venues after drinking alcohol at home.
"If minimum pricing genuinely helps to level the playing field between the off-trade and the on-trade, it will not only help keep pubs and bars competitive, but should also have social benefits in tackling the problems associated with excessive consumption of cheap, supermarket-bought alcohol."
The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) also welcomed the prime minister's support for pubs and his assurances that minimum pricing levels would not have an impact on them.
Nick Bish, ALMR chief executive, said: "We are pleased that the Government has finally woken up to the fact that it is the plethora of pocket money-priced alcohol and unregulated supermarket sales which are the real problem.
"With 70% of alcohol now bought and consumed at home, punitive measures against pubs and bars will not deliver the Government's public policy objectives on health and crime and disorder. We welcome this move that starts to address the price differential between pubs and supermarkets, and we still need action to encourage customers to drink in the supervised, responsible environment of the pub"
ALMR will be fully engaged in the consultation on minimum pricing levels and will urge a package of measures that will subject alcohol sales in supermarkets and off-licences to similar controls that are applied to bars and pubs.
Bish continued: "The aim must be to see alcohol sold and consumed responsibly. This is about individual behaviour, too, but we are certainly playing our part in making the alcohol policy work properly."
However the alcohol strategy appears to be at odds with the Government's Responsibility Deal, which invites operators, manufacturers and retailers to voluntarily commit to pledges aimed at improving the public health. It was introduced last year by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who objected to the proposed minimum pricing legislation and supported a ban on below-cost selling instead, but he was overruled by the prime minister.
The 40p price figure will undergo consultation, but Cameron still acknowledges that his move is likely to be challenged in the European Court by the drinks industry.
Henry Chevallier, chair of the National Association of Cider Makers (NACM), expressed extreme disappointment with the Government's new legislative approach, arguing that there had been no consultation on the great impact this legislation could have on the cider industry, which contributes significantly to the local, rural economies in which its members are based.
"The NACM recognises that we must find a solution to alcohol misuse, but minimum unit pricing is not a silver bullet; therefore a commitment to implement it without debate is not how we expect Government to operate."
Chevallier was pleased that other aspects of planned changes would be discussed more broadly and said that the NACM would respond positively to Government recommendations for further joint-industry co-operation, adding: "We continue to support the Responsibility Deal and believe that the unit reduction pledge announced today is a positive step forward."
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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