Home drinkers could pay considerably more for their meal-time bottle of wine or evening gin and tonic under a proposal to curb soaring levels of alcohol-related illness.
The Government's Chief Medical Officer will unveil his proposals today to set legally binding minimum prices for alcoholic drinks. Sir Liam Donaldson wants shops to be required to sell alcohol at no less than 50p per unit.
If his scheme gets the go-ahead, some own-brand supermarket beers and lagers could quadruple in price from as little as 25p a can to £1 each. Stronger New World wines, many of which harbour more than 10 units of alcohol per bottle, would cost upwards of £5. Own-brand spirits, which may contain up to 40 units per bottle and which are currently sold at a loss to encourage shoppers, might double in price.
But while doctors' leaders, alcohol campaigners and even publicans hit hard by the big retailers' aggressive pricing policies welcomed Sir Liam's plan, ministers tried to disassociate themselves from the idea yesterday.
It is understood that senior figures within the Government, including the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, are reluctant to add to the weekly costs faced by families already struggling to cope with the effects of the recession.
The Department of Health said it would not be making any "sweeping changes" to its strategy, which has been to educate drinkers about the health effects of hazardous drinking and to encourage them to cut down.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, said it was unacceptable to penalise the millions of people who drank modestly. "Clearly we will look at Liam Donaldson's proposals – he's a very eminent person in his field – but we are very clear we don't want to punish the majority for the sins of the minority. At a time of economic difficulty that looks like it would be the effect."
Sir Liam's proposals form part of his annual report on the state of the nation's health. His previous recommendations have included banning smoking in public (later adopted) and presuming consent to increase rates of organ donation (not adopted).
It comes amid mounting concern over the effects of heavy drinking on the public's health. It is estimated that as many as 40 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women regularly exceed safe drinking guidelines – two to three units per day for women and three to four units for men. Alcohol misuse costs the taxpayer £25bn each year – 400,000 people are admitted annually to hospital with a drink-related problem and 1,000 of them are under the age of 14.
Professor Ian Gilmore, the president of the Royal College of Physicians and a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said he was seeing ever-increasing numbers of patients with conditions such as cirrhosis.
The number of young people suffering from cirrhosis had soared tenfold since the 1970s, he said.
"We believe this is in the best interests of public health and this is something the politicians will have to make their minds up on. Price is not the only tool in the box but all the evidence shows that it is the No 1 driver of alcohol-related health decisions.
"We realise that it is not the same as changing the culture but at the moment we don't know how to change the culture and with hospital admissions rising by 80,000 a year we haven't got time to find the magic bullet."
Earlier this month, the Scottish Government said it was prepared to become the first in the world to introduce minimum prices per alcohol unit. Other European countries have already introduced a ban on selling alcohol below its cost.
Supermarkets hit a cautious note yesterday. A spokesman for Britain's largest retailer, Tesco, said: "If Government comes forward with a package of proposals including minimum alcohol pricing, we would enter into discussions positively. But it needs to be done carefully to ensure we do not hit the vast majority of people who buy and consume alcohol responsibly."
Convincing the rest of the industry could also prove hard.
David Poley, the chief executive of the Portman Group, set up by drinks manufacturers to promote sensible drinking, said: "This would hit the pockets of hard-working families who are already struggling to make ends meet, and it would not deter those people who drink to get drunk."
Jeremy Beadles, the chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which represents wine and spirits producers and wholesalers, said: "It is worrying that in the midst of a recession, when sales and consumption of alcohol are falling, that the Government should be talking about raising prices for all consumers, at a time when many are already struggling to make ends meet."
Cheap thrills: The Independent taste test
ASDA Smartprice Vodka
A 25ml shot contains a single alcoholic unit and costs 22p. Existing tax: 19p duty and 3p VAT.
Can't go far wrong with a mixer, although not everyone liked it. John Ryan, 46, sales assistant, said: "It smells a bit like white spirit. It's so horrible it made me retch. I never drink vodka straight and that's why."
South African Pinotage from the Western Cape
62p a glass, 1.75 units per glass. Existing tax: 22p duty and 9p VAT.
Asda calls it "earthy" and says that it is "packed with fruity flavour". Clair Powell, 46, a PA, said: "Value for money – it's a nice wine. But if it was over a fiver I'm sure you could find nicer bottles."
ASDA Extra Strength Bierre de Belgique
73p for 500ml Contains 2.2 units of alcohol. Existing tax: 33p duty plus 3.6p VAT.
"Full-bodied with a slight bitter aftertaste", it was compared to Heineken. Marayam Cordier, 22, a student, said: "If I got served this in a pub I would not be able to tell the difference."
ASDA Smartprice Bitter
24p for 500ml Contains one unit of alcohol. Existing tax: 33p duty plus 3.6p VAT.
A dark, traditional canned ale although some found it gassy and thin. Frasier Lundi, 65, retired postman, said: "One of the worst bitters I've ever tasted. I wouldn't buy it, even at its original price."Reuse content