The Government clashed with its medical advisers yesterday over how to tackle Britain's burgeoning problem of heavy drinking.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) called for the introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol to discourage supermarkets from discounting the cheapest products and promoting heavy drinking. It said its recommendations were backed by more than 100 scientific studies.
But Health Secretary Andrew Lansley rejected its analysis and said ministers instead favoured banning supermarkets and off-licences from selling alcohol "below cost price". Mr Lansley said: "It is not clear that [Nice's] research examines specifically the regressive effect on low-income families [of a minimum price], or proves conclusively that it is the best way to impact price in order to impact demand."
Launching new guidance on preventing harmful drinking, Nice said alcohol must become less affordable and harder to obtain with the biggest increases targetted at the cheapest alcohol.
No figure is given for the minimum price per unit of alcohol but other organisations including the Faculty of Public Health and the British Medical Association have backed a 50 pence minimum.
That would mean a bottle of wine would cost at least £4.50, a pint of 4 per cent lager £1.14 and a 10-pack would cost about £10. A two-litre bottle of cider, favoured by heavy drinkers, would cost a minimum of about £7.50.
Asked why Nice rejected a ban on "below cost" promotions in favour of a minimum price, Anne Ludbrooke, professor of health economics at the University of Aberdeen and a member of the panel that drew up the guidance, said: "What does 'below cost' mean? We need a definition. Some alcohol could remain quite cheap under that definition."
Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, who has backed a minimum price, said "below cost" was a confusing term capable of a variety of interpretations. "If it is just the duty plus the VAT, not including manufacturing, marketing and distribution costs, it is a very low base."
Backing for a minimum price has come from Sir Liam Donaldson, former government chief medical officer who retired last week, and from many medical organisations including the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing. But Mr Lansley said other factors such as demand and attitudes were crucial to understanding the causes of heavy drinking.
Among its 12 recommendations, Nice called for action including reducing the number of outlets selling alcohol, the hours they open, the amount of alcohol people may bring back from abroad, tougher curbs on advertising to young people and consideration of a complete ban on advertising to young people.