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Alcohol consumption 'continues to fall'

media captionBrigid Simmonds: "Binge drinkers are a very small minority of the population"

Alcohol consumption in 2009 saw the sharpest year-on-year decline since 1948, figures from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) suggest.

The data showed a 6% fall in 2009 - the fourth annual drop in five years.

The association said UK drinkers were now consuming 13% less alcohol than in 2004, below the EU average.

Pubs, bars, off-licences, restaurants and supermarkets all saw alcohol sales fall, the HM Revenue and Customs data from UK producers and importers showed.

It is thought the decline may be due to the effect of the recession on spending, but could also be a sign that messages about responsible drinking have affected drinking habits.

The organisation said UK taxes on beer remained the second highest duty rate in EU - 10 times higher than in Germany and seven times higher than in France.

'Baby steps'

Beer contributes £5.5bn in duty and VAT and alcohol contributing £14.6bn in total to UK tax revenues.

Other figures published in the BBPA Statistical Handbook 2010 show beer is the most popular drink sold, accounting for 60% of all alcohol sales in pubs, hotels, and restaurants. Wine is in second place at 17%.

In 2009, the UK ale market increased its market share of all beers for the first time since the 1960s. The number of UK brewers is now at its highest since 1940.

The total spending on beer is £17bn a year, or 41% of all spending on alcohol. The average price of a pint of bitter is £2.58, with lager £2.95.

London is the most expensive region to buy a pint, with prices 35% higher than in the north-east of England.

Neil Williams, from the BBPA, said while alcohol consumption had historically fallen during recessions, the figures showed a long-term downward trend.

"A key factor is that beer is by far the worst hit sector and we feel that it's the government's taxation policy in relation to beer that's causing that," he told the BBC.

"We've seen taxes shifting on to beer from other categories of drinks and that is a real problem."

He rejected the introduction of minimum pricing, saying the government should target those who binge drink.

"A minimum price is a blanket measure that will just put up everybody's shopping bill in a time of recession. What we need is targeted measures at those who are misusing alcohol," he said.

The association's chief executive, Brigid Simmonds, added that beer and pubs played a vital role in the UK economy in terms of turnover, jobs, and tax revenues.

But Dr Stuart Flanagan, who works in accident and emergency, said while the BBPA figures were encouraging, they had to be seen in the context that alcohol consumption had risen for 60 years.

He told the BBC: "Although we've seen a decrease year on year in the last few years, we've reached our sort of peak of alcohol consumption in 2004, so these are really baby steps in terms of how much alcohol reduction we're seeing across the board."

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