North may follow Britain’s lead on alcohol pricing

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The Irish Times – Saturday, March 24, 2012

North may follow Britain’s lead on alcohol pricing

UNA BRADLEY in Belfast

MINIMUM PRICING of alcohol is to be introduced in England and Wales in an effort to combat excessive consumption and prevent town centres becoming no-go areas due to drunken louts, the British home secretary Theresa May has announced.

A pricing regime will set a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol to deal with the problem, which costs the UK an estimated  £21 billion (€25 billion) a year. Also to be introduced are a ban on multi-purchase discount deals, a zero tolerance approach to drunken behaviour in hospital AE departments, a possible late-night levy to get pubs and clubs to help pay for policing, and improved powers to stop serving alcohol to drunks.

There were indications yesterday that the authorities in Northern Ireland could follow suit. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Belfast said its proposals were still at the research stage, but that minimum pricing was a “targeted way of making sure strong alcohol products are sold at a sensible price”.

Health minister Edwin Poots said: “In particular I am concerned by the way alcohol is sold in some of our supermarkets. It is often used as a loss leader and can be purchased cheaper than water or soft drinks.

“Given the nature of alcohol – the harm it can cause means it isn’t just another product like bread or milk – I believe that this is very irresponsible. If the supermarkets won’t behave responsibly we must look at legislation to address the issue.

“In real terms, alcohol is 62 per cent more affordable now than it was 30 years ago, and research indicates that a minimum unit price of 40p and a ban on promotions could decrease consumption by 5.4 per cent. This could mean savings of  £13.5 million to the Health and Social Care Sector every year.”

According to the British Medical Association, the cost to society of alcohol misuse in the North is an estimated  £679.8 million, 226 lives and 140,000 sick days each year. Any restriction, price or otherwise, on alcohol sales and availability in the North could prompt cross-border purchasing.

In London, Mrs May said responsible drinkers had nothing to fear from the policy, which she said would only deal with the cheapest fifth of alcohol currently sold.

“Some people think that a good night out is actually pre-loading, so drinking at home, getting drunk at home on cheap alcohol, going out, drinking some more, and then causing problems and mayhem in our town centres,” Mrs May told the BBC.

“There are one million violent crimes that are alcohol-fuelled in our society. We need to do something about this.”

The plans have met with opposition from the drinks industry, with some accusing David Cameron of being “seriously misguided”.

But the British prime minister said he was making “no excuses” for tackling the country’s drink problem. – (Additional reporting: PA).