20-year study reveals significant social benefits follow a 10 per cent rise in the price of alcohol

Minimum pricing for alcohol substantially reduces drinking and would help to tackle the burden of alcohol-related deaths, disease and injuries, according to landmark new research.

Health Minister Andrew Lansley, who will introduce his alcohol strategy next year, has defied medical opinion by insisting minimum pricing could be unlawful, would penalise the poor and fail to tackle binge drinking.

But the first study of its kind, made over 20 years in British Columbia, Canada, shows that increasing the minimum price of alcohol has led to overall falls in alcohol consumption.

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These findings, from the first evaluation of government policy, will put pressure on the Coalition to reconsider its softer approach, which hopes to nudge the drinks industry and problem drinkers in the right direction.

In contrast, the Scottish Government has introduced a Minimum Pricing Bill which could come in to force by 2013. The British Columbia research indicates that a 10 per cent increase in minimum prices, affecting relatively few drinks, led to a 3.4 per cent overall fall in alcohol consumption. The greatest impact was on alcopops and ciders, which fell by almost 14 per cent. More could be possible as only the minimum price for spirits kept up with inflation.

Government figures for 2010-11 show alcohol-related conditions led to nearly 1.2 million hospital admissions in England and Wales. Nearly 10,000 people were injured or killed in accidents involving drink-drivers and in England, alcohol was linked to 400,000 crimes.

The British Columbia team is yet to publish further research showing significant falls in hospital admissions.

Professor Tim Stockwell, head of the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, said: "Minimum pricing is an effective public health policy.

"It saves lives, reduces costs, prevents road traffic accidents and decreases admissions. The science is unarguable. Any negative unintended consequences could easily be addressed."

Professor Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "This is clear evidence that consumption is linked to minimum prices. We cannot afford to wait to nudge people into drinking less or for voluntary partnerships with the drinks industry to work." The Department of Health said: "The Government will continue to review all available evidence. Our responsibility deal is working with the industry on voluntary agreements to get speedier results, such as the British Beer and Pub Association's unit awareness campaign."