Minimum alcohol price in UK 'would save lives'
A minimum price for alcohol in the UK would help prevent thousands of deaths from related diseases, a group of leading doctors and academics has said.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, 19 experts said Scottish plans for minimum pricing were a "simple and effective" way to tackle alcohol-related deaths.
They called for an end to so-called "pocket-money prices" ahead of a debate by MPs later on alcohol taxation.
The Department for Health said it was due to launch a new "alcohol strategy".
The group of leading experts said alcohol was linked to 13,000 new cases of cancer each year and associated with one in four deaths of people in the 15-to-24 age group.
Their letter was signed by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing among others.'Bold action'
It said: "We need to narrow the price gap between alcohol bought in bars and restaurants with alcohol bought in supermarkets and off-licences, to make bulk discounts and pocket-money prices a thing of the past."
"We urgently need to raise the price of cheap drink," it states because of a "wealth of evidence" linking the cost of alcohol and levels of harm.
End Quote Professor Sir Ian Gilmore
It's not just about damage to individuals who drink too much but their children and unborn babies and the victims of alcohol-related crime”
If the coalition is not ready for the "bold action" of minimum pricing, it says MPs must not "lose sight" of taxation as a tool to lower drinking levels.
Last August David Cameron called for a crackdown on stores selling cheap drinks to stop alcohol-fuelled disorder leaving town and city centres like "the wild west".
The coalition has introduced a ban on the sale of alcohol for less than cost price, which will come into force in England and Wales in April 2012.
In November, the Scottish government made a second bid to bring in legislation which will set a minimum price for a unit of alcohol. It has already put in place a ban on "irresponsible" drinks promotions.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser to the Royal College of Physicians, said nearly 10,000 lives a year could be saved by a minimum price of 50p per alcohol unit.
He told the Telegraph that the government had acknowledged the importance of price by introducing a ban on selling alcohol below cost, but said this did not go "far enough".
"We're talking about saving lives here.
"It's not just about damage to individuals who drink too much but their children and unborn babies and the victims of alcohol-related crime. The most effective way of targeting the heaviest drinkers is probably through a minimum unit price."
A Department for Health spokesman said its new "alcohol strategy" would be launched early next year.
And a spokesman for Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he had been reluctant to consider a minimum price per unit because it would not be legal in terms of the EU competition regulations.
Opponents of a minimum unit price say it is unfair because it penalises all drinkers, not just those who cause or have problems.
In October, Anne Milton, public health minister for England, told MPs that a minimum price per unit could be open to legal challenges relating to European competition law.
Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said alcohol had been too cheap for too long.
"There are record numbers of people being admitted to hospital for alcohol abuse. And the number of under-18s is rising steeply," she said.
"All the medical evidence points to the need for a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Alcohol abuse is not just a health issue, it is a public order issue."