Ministers could copy Scottish proposals, which would ban the sale of alcohol below 45p a unit, or bring in a more sophisticated system of taxes based on the number of alcohol units contained in the drink.Both options would cost drinkers an estimated extra £700 million a year, with any extra tax revenue potentially going to the NHS. The Daily Telegraph understands that the Prime Minister personally ordered the radical “big bang” approach, which will be included in the Government’s forthcoming alcohol strategy. It was due for release next month, but has now been delayed until February.
A recent official study found that setting a minimum price of 30p per unit would prevent 300 deaths a year, 40p about 1,000 deaths, and 50p more than 2,000 premature deaths.The Downing Street diktat has led to intense Whitehall discussions and disagreements over how the minimum price, which has widespread support among the medical profession, can be introduced. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is said to favour taxing drink on the basis of alcoholic units. The Business Department has warned that forcing firms to charge a minimum price could be illegal under European law.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, favours a voluntary approach, but he has been overruled by Mr Cameron, although the compulsory scheme might fall foul of government lawyers.The minimum price would be accompanied by an “aggressive” public health campaign and a more draconian approach to curtailing the sale of alcohol in shops, pubs and clubs.A Whitehall source said: “The Prime Minister has decided that when it comes to alcohol, something pretty radical now has to be done and he is keen on the minimum price. It is complicated how this can be delivered, particularly under European law, but it is clear that the voluntary approach has not worked.”
At present, the system of alcohol taxation is relatively crude. Beer and lager is taxed at about 18p a unit, compared with 19p a unit for wine and about 25p a unit for standard spirits. VAT at 20 per cent is also charged on alcoholic drinks.The most radical scheme would involve a sharp rise in alcohol taxation. However, this is likely to prove politically unpalatable and would penalise responsible drinkers who are already struggling with high taxes elsewhere.
A more sophisticated scheme would target cheap drink sold in supermarkets and shops, while not hitting those sold in pubs or more expensive alcoholic drinks. A well-placed source said: “The minimum price is really designed to push up the cheapest alcohol prices, which cause the most damage, rather than an across-the-board rise. The Prime Minister is very concerned about protecting traditional pubs.”Mr Cameron is thought to have opted for a “big bang” approach to the alcohol problem after noting the success of the ban on smoking in public places.
Scotland is currently proposing a minimum alcohol price of about 45p a unit and several councils in England, including Greater Manchester and Merseyside, are considering bylaws to set minimum alcohol prices.Scottish estimates suggest that a minimum price per unit of 45p would result in the steepest price increases for cider, gin and vodka, while wine, beer and whisky would see more modest rises.A bottle of own-brand gin with around 37.5 per cent alcohol content would go up from £6.95 to £11.85. A two-litre bottle of own-brand cider would more than triple in price from £1.20 to £3.75.
The cost of a £12 bottle of whisky would rise to £12.60, while a bottle of cheap wine would go up from around £3.75 to £4.20. A four-pack of beer with more than five per cent alcohol content would cost a minimum of about £3.95.European law is complicated and minimum prices are only likely to be allowed if the authorities can demonstrate that they are tackling a major health problem without undermining competition. Last month, a group of 19 leading medical organisations warned that “pocket-money prices” for alcohol were endangering thousands of lives every year.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, doctors from the British Medical Association and Royal College of Physicians claimed that minimum pricing for alcohol would be the most “simple and effective mechanism” for tackling the problem.Following the warning, the Prime Minister said he would “look very carefully” at how to tackle the problem of cheap alcohol.Historically, governments have been reluctant to look at minimum pricing because of concerns about the legality of the move and accusations of promoting a “nanny state” culture. Mr Cameron may also face criticism from Tories unhappy at any move to carry out such an intervention by raising taxes.
The Coalition has already banned supermarkets from selling alcohol at a loss and introduced higher duties for super-strength beers and ciders. But lager can still be sold for about 38p a can and wine for £2 per bottle. Dr Sarah Wollaston, an MP on the Common’s health committee and a former GP, said that alcohol misuse was costing the nation £20 billion, or £800 for every family. She has campaigned in Parliament for minimum pricing, arguing that alcohol abuse was the “single largest cause of deaths among young people.”
“Most health experts feel that changing pricing is the most effective way of achieving results,” she said.Figures published earlier this month showed that twice as many people were being treated in hospital because of alcohol misuse compared with 10 years ago.Alcohol is linked to more than one million admissions to hospital each year, about 13,000 new cases of cancer and one in four deaths of people aged 15 to 24.Gavin Partington, of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said there was “no evidence [a minimum price per unit] will tackle alcohol misuse”.The association would rather see “enforcement, education and a series of policies to address the root causes of alcohol misuse”, he added. – Thetelegraph