Government plans to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol in England and Wales could be illegal under EU law, according to the trade group, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.
Its chief executive Miles Beale told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that any attempt to introduce minimum pricing would be “very unpopular and there are substantial grounds to believe it may be illegal under EU law”.
Commenting on government plans to launch a public consultation on minimum pricing, which could outlaw discount, multi-buy deals in supermarkets and shops, Beale said there was no evidence to suggest a minimum alcohol price would be effective in tackling alcohol misuse. “Minimum unit pricing would unfairly penalise the vast majority of the population who are perfectly responsible drinkers and it would hit those on the lowest incomes hardest,” he said.
But Dr Vivienne Nathanson, of the British Medical Association, said minimum pricing was effective in reducing the consumption of two key groups. “The two groups we really want to get to − young people beginning to buy alcohol and buying it in large quantities and the heaviest drinkers − are equally affected; they will reduce the amount they drink. They still drink in harmful levels but less harmful amounts,” she said.
Beale said a 50p minimum unit price would impact two-thirds of the alcohol products you see on supermarket shelves. A bottle of wine now priced at £3.69 would rise to £4.88 − a 32% increase.
Problem drinkers were unlikely to cut consumption based on price, he claimed. “The heaviest drinkers are the least responsive to price changes. So minimum alcohol pricing would not work.”
But Nathanson claimed drinkers are sensitive to price. “Alcohol is a dose-related poison. In other words, the more you drink, the more harm it causes. So by reducing the amount they are drinking over the safe limit, you are helping to save them and it can affect children, which is very important.”
She added that it was not a small proportion of the population that was drinking excessively – it was nearly a quarter. “That’s a huge proportion of people who are drinking at levels that are hazardous to their health. And we really have to throw everything that we can to save lives.”
The Home Office consultation is expected to consult on a minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit, compared with 50p proposed in Scotland.
The proposals would affect over the counter sales in supermarkets and shops rather than pub sales.
Some outlets have been accused of treating alcohol as loss leaders to attract customers with reports of cans of lager selling for only 20p and two-litre bottles of cider priced at under £2.
Save 900 lives a year
Previously ministers have said a 40p minimum price could save 900 lives a year and prevent 50,000 crimes by 2020.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned that restrictions on alcohol prices and promotions would not address the causes of irresponsible drinking and would “set a dangerous precedent for government interference in markets”.
BRC food director Andrew Opie said: “Harmful drinking has cultural causes and retailers are tackling those with collaborative working on clear labelling and targeted awareness campaigns that help customers drink responsibly. Where’s the evidence that imposing a blanket measure that puts up prices for all customers will make a difference?
“Most people already drink less than recommended limits. There is no reason why they should be denied access to discounts.”
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