Why are we asking this now?
A new code will ban pubs and clubs from running irresponsible drinks promotions. From April, pubs, clubs and nightclubs will be banned from offering "All you can drink for £10" or "dentist's chairs" where liquids are squirted into mouths, and will be forced to offer free tap water. From October, they will be obliged to offer wine in small and large glasses and spirits in single and double measures, while all alcohol sellers will be required to check whether buyers are under 18 as a condition of their licence. Fines for selling alcohol to minors will be doubled. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the measures were needed to limit alcohol-related crime, which is costing the country between £8bn and £13bn a year.
Why is action needed?
Alcohol is blamed for a series of ills: illness including liver cirrhosis, obesity and impaired brain function; crime including assault, rape and murder, domestic violence; anti-social behaviour and public disorder such as shouting, urination and vomiting; economic activity through lost days at work; and the spread of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies as a result of unprotected sex.
According to a study by the National Social Marketing Centre in 2007, the total annual cost of alcohol misuse in England is £55.1bn: £21bn to individuals and households from loss of income and informal care costs; £21bn in other human costs; £7.3bn to employers through absenteeism and other problems; £2.8bn to public health and care services; and £2.1bn to the criminal justice system. Thirty-one per cent of men and 21 per cent of women drink hazardously or harmfully. The Royal Collage of Physicians estimates alcohol kills 30,000 to 40,000 people a year. Some 3.5 million people are "dependent" on alcohol.
Why do people drink, then?
Academics and policymakers tend to ignore the positive effects of alcohol, but, anecdotally, they are: an increased sense of relaxation and bonhomie; greater sensory appreciation of music, colour, movement and conversation; increased social and community cohesion; increased likelihood of romantic liaisons and sexual intercourse ('Beer: helping ugly people have sex since 1862' is a T-shirt slogan).
Why target pubs, clubs and nightclubs?
A significant minority of off-licences and other shops (the off-trade) and pubs and clubs (the on-trade) were flouting the voluntary Social Responsibility Standards agreed in 2005. While there was some good practice, a review by consultants KPMG in 2008 found alcohol was being sold to children; binge drinking was being promoted through low-price offers including inducements by DJs to consumer greater quantities and encouragement to down shooters 'in one'; alcohol was being glamorized through links with sexual imagery; and there were poor dispersal practices at pubs and clubs and consequent evidence of anti-social behaviour and low-level crime such as fights and assaults.
What else might ministers have tried?
The other option open to ministers was to introduce minimum pricing. Retailers of alchohol could be required to sell it for a certain amount, such as, say, 50p per unit.
Who supports minimum pricing?
Almost everyone apart from the drinks industry and the Government, and, probably, millions of members of the public of voting age. Academics say that raising the price of drinks reduces consumption. Those backing a minimum price include Martin Plant, Professor of Addiction Studies at the University of West England, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, the British Medical Association, the Commons Health Select Committee and CAMRA, the real ale campaign which says pubs are losing trade to supermarkets selling bargain lager, cider and vodka. While consumption in the on-trade (pubs etc) is falling, it is rising at home, largely due to the relative cheapness of supermarket alcohol.
But why not ministers?
After Sir Liam Donaldson annual report last March, Gordon Brown said: "We don't want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a minority."
Is he right about that?
Not according to the Health Select Committee (HSC), which called for minimum pricing in a report this month which scorned successive Governments for failing to put in place an effective alcohol strategy.
By virtue of their moderate consumption, moderate drinkers would be little affected by minimum pricing, said the cross-party committee. On the other hand, it said, it would most target the heaviest drinkers, particularly young people and the working classes, who suffer disproportionately high levels of liver disease. One in 10 Britons consume 44 per cent of all alcohols.
Last year Sheffield University concluded that a 50p minimum price per unit would cut alcohol consumption by 7 per cent across the board and 10 per cent cut among heavy drinkers. If set at 40p a unit, a woman would be able to buy the maximum recommended 15 units a week for £6.
What about Scotland?
The Scottish National Party-dominated Scottish Executive is in favour of minimum pricing. It has not identified the price per unit but a figure of 40p per unit has been mentioned.
The measure is opposed by Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats but supported by health professionals, including the directors of public health at the country's 14 local health boards and the heads of Health Protection Scotland, NHS Health Scotland and the Scottish Prison Service's medical service. The Welsh Assembly is considering minimum pricing.
So how much do we drink?
Drinking was highest in the 19th Century before the Victorians sought to divert working people away from cheap gin and beer and towards more virtuous pursuits, such as reading and museums. With the exception of the 1930s Depression and two world wars, consumption fell to a low point after the second world war era, in the late forties and fifties. It began to rise again markedly in the 1960s and 1970s as alcohol became more affordable, peaking in the early 21st Century before dipping in the last few years, amid publicity about anti-social behaviour and binge-drinking. While modern drinking looks relatively modest, it is much higher than it was a few decades ago.
What hope the latest crackdown will actually work?
The HSC said last month: "Faced by a mounting problem, the response of successive Governments has ranged from the non-existent to the ineffectual... Evidence showed a rise in the price of alcohol was the most effective way of reducing consumption just as its increasing affordability since the 1960s had been the cause of the major rise in consumption." The Government says minimum pricing is not a "magic bullet". It has fired an airgun pellet instead.
Should there be a minimum price for alcohol?
* Raising prices is the most effective way of reducing consumption. Those drinking most would be hardest hit
* It encourages responsible drinking in pubs, which already charge more than suggested minimums
* Police favour minimum pricing, amid signs of young people "pre-loading" on cheap booze before going out
* Moderate drinkers should not be financially penalised for having an occasional drink
* It might distract politicians from increasing policing in town centres and combating alcohol addiction
* A small minority of drinkers cause most of the problems; they should be targeted specifically and individually