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13.03.13

Government backtracks on minimum alcohol pricing after Cabinet split

The Coalition may not introduce minimum pricing for alcohol after all, after senior Conservative ministers opposed the policy.

Prime Minister David Cameron had previously said that a minimum price per unit of alcohol could save millions of pounds in reduced costs on the NHS, tackling crime and social cohesion, as well as improving the nation’s health. The minimum price per unit was expected to be set at 45p, just under the 50p being introduced in Scotland.

The Home Office is considering responses to its consultation on the topic, but very senior ministers including home secretary Theresa May, education secretary Michael Gove and former health secretary Andrew Lansley are said to oppose the plans. Critics suggest it would penalise responsible drinkers and reduce tax revenues, and are putting pressure on Cameron to drop the policy.

The medical community has reacted with dismay, since there is a widespread belief that increasing its cost is one of the few ways to get people to drink less alcohol and reduce its health and social costs. The British Medical Association urged the Prime Minister to ignore the critics and to “be courageous” and take a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, save the country money”.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, a professor of hepatology and former RCP president, who chairs the Alcohol Health Alliance, said the Government “can’t afford” to do nothing about rising death rates from liver disease and the “enormous burden” Britain faces from alcohol.

He said: “We urge the Government to stand firm on MUP in the confidence that the evidence gets stronger, and the support base wider, for this policy by the day.”

Labour said it was a “humiliating climbdown”.

But Wine and Spirit Trade Association chief executive Miles Beale said: “Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge-drinker.”

Conservative MP David Davis, an influential voice on the backbenches known for his libertarian views, said: “There’s no doubt there is an issue to be dealt with in terms of a minority of the public who abuse alcohol, but this is a blunderbuss of a policy.

“It won’t just hit those, it’ll hit poor people. It’ll hit people in the north. It’ll hit the pensioner having their one bottle of wine a week; it’ll hit the hard-up couple doing the same.

“There’s a drinking divide in Britain, a cultural divide, and you will not solve it by this rather heavy-handed sort of mass effect that won’t actually stop the problem.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@nationalhealthexecutive.com

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