Ministers were accused last night of putting lives at risk at Christmas by slashing spending on publicity campaigns about drink-driving.
Just £550,000 has been allocated for this year's advertising blitz – a fraction of the £3.4m spent in 2009-10 – as part of the squeeze on Whitehall budgets, The Independent has learnt.
Details of the cuts emerged as the Government prepares to trumpet radical action to cut binge-drinking, including setting minimum prices for alcohol sales in supermarkets.
The traditional Christmas anti-drink-driving campaign has been scaled back after a virtual freeze was imposed on government publicity budgets. This year there will be no TV or cinema advertisements because of their expense.
Instead the Department for Transport campaign will focus on radio, as well as working with computer search engines to ensure government information about drink-driving is prominent. Campaigns will be run in pubs offering discounts on soft-drinks. Previous TV campaigns, often using shock tactics to convey the human cost of drink-driving, have been regarded as highly effective.
Challenged about the cuts, Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, told MPs: "All departmental advertising budgets have been reduced and what we are trying to do is refocus our efforts in a more targeted way." He said it was a "fortunate coincidence that the most effective way of reaching a young audience nowadays tends to be via social networking media".
Mike Penning, the Road Safety minister, said: "Only the most essential campaigns, including the Think! Christmas drink-drive campaign, are going ahead. It is vital we spend taxpayers' money wisely and that is why we will be focusing spending on activity closest to the points where drivers may risk drink-driving."
But Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "It seems like easy cuts, but you have to be particularly concerned about the impact.
"Advertising can be an effective part of a strategy to cut deaths and serious injuries on the roads. It you abandon that strategy and stop spending, you are just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best."
The Government will announce proposals to tackle problem drinking this week. It is expected to promise to ban below-cost price promotions of alcohol designed to attract shoppers.
Minimum prices for different drinks, based on the duty on the product, as well as value-added tax, will be set out. It could be £10.50 for a litre bottle of spirits, £8.50 for a 20-pack of beer and at least £2 for a bottle of wine. Licences could be withdrawn from shops that sell alcohol more cheaply.