Jeremy Laurance: Why low alcohol prices are a matter of life and death

A senior doctor, now chairman of a large NHS trust, described to me a meeting he attended at No 10 of experts advising the Prime Minister on the perils faced by young people in the presence of alcohol. Sir Terry Leahy, the former boss of Tesco, was present, and he ferociously defended the right of supermarkets to charge what they like for alcohol. The price had no bearing on the amount people drank, he said. The doctor was outraged and launched a one man boycott of the supermarket. "I have never shopped in Tesco since," he said.

You can see why. Last week, figures showed cases of alcoholic liver disease among young people in the North-east have soared by 60 per cent in the last seven years. People in their twenties and thirties are being admitted to hospital with terminal liver conditions.

The Scottish government is the first in the world to address the problem by announcing plans for a minimum price of alcohol under the Alcohol Act, which came into force on 1 October.

Although the government has not yet fixed a minimum price, its first attempt to do so, which failed during the last parliament, proposed that it should be set at 45 pence per unit.

Following the Scottish National Party's victory in the election last May, this new plan is set to become law next summer.

Alcohol is 44 per cent cheaper in the UK than in 1980. In Scotland you can buy 21 units of alcohol, the recommended weekly amount for men, for less than £4.

The Scottish government's plans could be scuppered, however, by a court challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association, worried about the impact of any price control in the UK on its export prospects abroad. Meanwhile, a nightclub owner in Durham has announced he will let customers bring their own booze because he cannot compete with the prices charged by supermarkets.

The threat to young people's health from cheap booze is too great. If the Government will not act, the supermarkets must be shamed into doing so. Anyone for a boycott of Tesco?