Hewitt calls for increase in tax on alcohol to curb binge drinking

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The Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has called for a substantial increase in the tax on alcohol to discourage binge drinking by teenagers.

She has asked the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to include the tax increase in his budget, next March. She is particularly pushing for a big rise in the price of alcopops, which she blames for the large number of teenagers filling the accident and emergency wards at weekends. A price rise might cut the amount that teenagers drink and contribute to solving a major health problem.

Ms Hewitt told children's weekly paper First News: "I am asking Gordon Brown, as the Chancellor, when he comes forward with the Budget next year, to really increase taxes on alcohol. And particularly things like alcopops and some of the stuff that quite a lot of teenage boys and girls are drinking because we've got a real problem with binge drinking among young people."

Figures published earlier this year showed that 48 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women aged between 16 and 24 drank more than the daily alcohol limit recommended by the Department of Health. Heavy drinking is more common than among the over-25s. During a survey taken last year, 22 per cent of pupils in England aged between 11 and 15 said that they had drunk alcohol in the previous week. The average weekly amount of alcohol consumed by school children doubled during the 1990s, and has remained at around the 2000 level ever since.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have found that social drinkers who get into binge-drinking as teenagers and then progress to heavy drinking after work form the vast majority of patients developing alcohol-related liver cirrhosis.

Ms Hewitt said: "We've got enormous numbers of young people, particularly on a Friday and Saturday night, ending up in the casualty department of hospitals because they're drunk. They've fallen over and bashed their heads in because they're drinking too much.

"I think putting taxes up on alcohol would help discourage young people from spending too much money on alcohol."

A spokesman for the Department for Health said: "Patricia Hewitt gave an interview on healthy living to four competition winners from First News last week.

"The children asked if she could give them an exclusive story, and Patricia Hewitt told them that she had asked the Treasury to consider raising taxes on alcohol, including alcopops.

"All taxes and duty rates are kept under review by the Treasury and are considered by the Chancellor as part of the Budget process."