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Leading article: A cure for the British drinking disease

Britain is sobering up. Last year saw the biggest one-year fall in alcohol consumption since 1948.

The 6 per cent decline is the fourth annual drop in five years. Does this suggest the nation's 60-year alcoholic binge is coming to an end? Unlikely. Health messages may have had some impact, but the most credible explanation for the decline is the recession. When people have less cash in their pockets they put less cash on the bar.

The clear long-term trend since the war has been that as alcohol gets cheaper (in real terms), consumption rises. Three times as much alcohol is drunk per head today as in 1948. Saloon-bar wisdom has it that people drink what they like, regardless of cost. That myth is nailed by yesterday's figures. Alcohol is sensitive to economic factors and even small adjustments can move consumption up or down. The drinks lobby protests that we in the UK drink less than the European average and that talk of an alcohol crisis is scaremongering. It is true we consume less in total than some other countries including Germany and Spain. But it is not how much we drink that is the problem. It is the way that we drink it.

Binge drinking is a peculiarly (though not exclusively) British disease. Even a small reduction in the number of binge drinkers could save the NHS millions – and mark a step towards reclaiming our town centres. The Scottish Executive and its health minister, Nicola Sturgeon, have proposed a 45p minimum price per unit of alcohol to end supermarket promotions where beer can cost less than water.

The idea was proposed by Sir Liam Donaldson, England's former chief medical officer, last year. But it was rejected by Gordon Brown because, he claimed, it would penalise moderate drinkers. Mr Brown's argument was nonsense. At 45p a unit it would cost a moderate drinker consuming the average six units weekly (three pints of ordinary bitter) less than 20p more a week than at present. Opposition parties in Scotland appear reluctant to back Ms Sturgeon's proposal. They should swallow their reservations. Minimum pricing is the only measure likely to curb this growing menace. And once it has proved its value, England should fall into line.