Minimum pricing on alcohol will not beat Britain's burgeoning drink problem, the Health Secretary insists, defying medical experts. Andrew Lansley, who is preparing to launch a new year drive aimed at ending the country's binge drinking culture, today warns that deep-rooted drinking habits in some areas mean that boosting the price of booze will do little to curb excess.
This comes as Britain shakes off a collective hangover after Black Friday, the most popular night for office Christmas parties and the busiest of the year for drink-related casualties. Some ambulance services received 999 calls as frequently as every 30 seconds to deal with injured and drunk revellers.
New research from the Department of Health underlines how excess alcohol affects almost every aspect of British life. More than 2.6m children in the UK now live with a parent who drinks at hazardous levels. Mortality rates from liver disease among under-75s rose by 16 per cent between 2001 and 2009, new statistics show. And lost productivity because of hung over staff cost businesses £1.7bn a year.
Britain is the drunk man of Europe. Alcohol consumption in France, Germany and Italy is down by between 37 and 52 per cent since 1980. But in the UK it is up nine per cent, with binge drinkers sinking more booze than ever, putting unprecedented pressure on the NHS, police and social services.
The Scottish government backs the idea of a minimum charge per unit of alcohol, which could see a bottle of wine cost at least £4.50 and a pint of beer around 90p. Experts believe thousands of lives would be saved if "pocket-money prices" were outlawed.
But the Health Secretary says there are "big problems" with the idea, which would penalise the poor, fall foul of EU competition laws, and do little to tackle the kind of dangerous drinking seen in town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights.
Mr Lansley told The Independent on Sunday: "Are we really saying that because a bottle of vodka isn't £8 but £12.50 they are not going to preload with a bottle of vodka for a night out when they are in clubs where they pay £5 for a drink? That is absurd. They are still going to do this binge drinking because that is a behaviour issue. We have got to do much more to focus on what this means."
Doctors and academics from the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, among others, backed a minimum alcohol price, highlighting that in 2010 it was 44 per cent more affordable than in 1980. "We need to narrow the price gap between alcohol in bars and restaurants and alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences, to make bulk discounts and pocket-money prices a thing of the past," they said in a letter to the coalition in Westminster.
The Health Secretary conceded that higher prices for drink can reduce consumption but added: "It is more likely to have a bigger proportionate impact on responsible drinkers who happen to be low-income households."
His rejection of the idea will lay the Government open to claims that it has sided with big business, but Mr Lansley argues that a minimum price of 50p per unit would hand £600m in extra revenue to drinks firms. He maintains that the causes of binge drinking are too complex to be solved simply by raising prices.
"The cost of alcohol in Britain is the same in different parts," he said. "But we have got lots of women in the North East who are fetching up in critical units with chronic alcohol abuse and liver disease on a regular basis – far more than in Hampshire. There are disparities that are nothing to do with price. We need to be realistic about what it is we are trying to address, which isn't simply if you raise the price all our problems will go away.
"The question is, what is the relationship between price changes and alcohol misuse? Because alcohol consumption and alcohol misuse are not on a straight line to each other."
New figures for 2010-11 reveal marked differences in the number of people hospitalised by alcohol. In Manchester, Middlesbrough, and Liverpool, Sunderland and Tyneside people are treated as inpatients for alcohol-related conditions at a rate of more than 2,800 per 100,000. By contrast, in areas such as Hampshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire the rate is less than half that, at 1,400 per 100,000.
Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians, has warned that it is now "commonplace" to find young women being treated for liver disease. Mortality rates for liver disease, including cirrhosis, is two-thirds higher among women aged 35 to 64 in the North-east and North-west than the national average.
Admissions to A&E linked to alcohol have doubled in the past eight years, reaching 1.2m in 2010.
The alcohol strategy is expected to bolster Mr Lansley's concept of community alcohol partnerships, where police, retailers and trading standards unite to crackdown on underage drinking and booze-fuelled antisocial behaviour. Mr Lansley added: "I think we can do immensely better in terms of preventing sales to youngsters."
In October, the Government banned the sale of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT to prevent below-cost sales. Extra duty has been added to super-strength lagers, while a reduced rate is charged on beers below 2.8 per cent. Services to help chronic abusers to "detox" and change their behaviour are also being improved.
However, the rejection of minimum pricing will dismay campaigners who hoped ministers would take a tougher stance. A new study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, published in the Alcohol Research & Health journal, found "price increases can help reduce the risk for adverse consequences of alcohol consumption and abuse, including drinking and driving, alcohol involved crimes, cirrhosis and other alcohol-related mortality, risky sexual behaviour and its consequences, and poor school performance among youth".
Katherine Brown, head of research and communications at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: "Raising the price of super-cheap drink sold in supermarkets will not penalise moderate drinkers, it will target those who misuse alcohol, and tackle one of the root causes of what is possibly the nation's biggest health and social problem."
She added that the total cost of alcohol harm to society exceeds £25bn each year. Separate estimates suggest the alcohol industry contributes £15bn in taxes.
In January the Commons science and technology select committee on will publish a major report on guidelines on drinking.
The Government's Responsibility Deal, under which drinks companies and supermarkets are urged to change the way they operate, has sparked accusations of ministers getting too close to the booze industry. Under the deal, Asda became the first supermarket to agree to remove cut price drinks deals from the front of stores.
But the Conservative MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, launched a strong attack on the supermarket after finding the chain selling two litres of cider for £1.48 and a four-pack of bitter for 68p. In a Commons debate, Dr Wollaston accused the supermarket of "killing its customers" and causing "carnage".
A spokesperson for Asda said: "The vast majority of our customers drink responsibly and we shouldn't penalise the majority for the actions of the few."
Each year, drink leads to the admission of more than a million people to hospital for treatment of alcohol-related cancers, liver disease, and poisoning. Nearly 1.2 million people in England needed inpatient hospital treatment in 2010-11 – a 9 per cent rise on the previous year. Liver disease is the only major condition that is on the increase in Britain. In some age groups, the rates of cirrhosis have risen tenfold in 30 years. Lawyers and company bosses are at more risk of dying from alcohol as they get older, because they do not realise they are drinking to excess.
The Home Office estimates that alcohol-fuelled crime cost between £8bn and £13bn in 2007-08. Alcohol played a part in more than a million crimes in 2007-08, and is a factor in almost half of all violent crimes. In England, alcohol was linked to 400,000 crimes in 2010-11, including 6,700 sexual offences. Almost one in four Britons experiences drunk or rowdy behaviour in their neighbourhood, according to the British Crime Survey. Last year, alcohol was blamed for 928,000 violent incidents – almost half of the total – by victims of crime. The charity Alcohol Concern estimates drink plays a part in one in three child abuse cases, as well as in the majority of domestic violence incidents.
Last year, 9,700 people were killed or injured in accidents involving drivers who were over the drink-drive limit. This accounts for five per cent of all road accident victims. Drink-drive accidents resulted in 250 deaths in 2010 – 14 per cent of all road fatalities, according to the latest Department of Transport statistics. Alcohol was blamed for one in 10 fatal motorway crashes in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.
Up to 17 million working days are lost each year because of alcohol-related sickness. More than one in four adults are regular drinkers. Many will take time off rather than go to work with a hangover. Those who struggle in are more likely to be late, find it difficult to concentrate, and are more likely to make mistakes. The cost to employers of sick days due to drink is estimated at £1.7bn. Loss of productivity is a factor in the damaging cost of alcohol to England, estimated at somewhere between £20bn and £55bn
The alcohol industry is worth £36bn, and pays £15bn in tax, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. Britain's nightlife industry employs 1.3 million people. Each week, 15 million people socialise in pubs, which alone employ more than 600,000 people. In the past decade, sales of beer in pubs have fallen by more than a third, but have risen by a quarter in off-licences. Vodka accounts for almost a third of all spirits bought in Britain.