David Cameron vows to tackle binge drinking 'scandal'

Media caption,
David Cameron: "This is a national problem and it needs a government to focus on it"

Prime Minister David Cameron has called for bars, supermarkets and the drinks industry in England to do more to help ensure responsible drinking.

On a visit to a hospital in north-east England, he promised to tackle the "scandal" of drunkenness and alcohol abuse that costs the NHS £2.7bn a year.

He suggested the use of US-inspired "drunk tanks", cells to house people overnight while they sober up.

But Labour dismissed Mr Cameron's proposals as "warm words".

The government will publish its alcohol strategy for England later this year.

A ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price - less than the tax paid on it - is set to be introduced in England and Wales from 6 April.

But ministers are expected to go further in the forthcoming strategy, recommending a higher minimum price for drink.

'Costs jobs'

Scotland has already introduced an Alcohol Bill, which could become law before the summer, although ministers have yet to set a minimum cost per unit.

But opponents of a minimum unit price say it is unfair because it penalises all drinkers, not just those who cause or have problems.

It is thought any move could also be open to legal challenges relating to European competition law, which - according to the European Commission - is aimed at pushing down prices for consumers and allowing firms to operate in a free market.

The British Beer and Pub Association said there was "a danger it would be done through higher taxation, which would be hugely damaging to pub-goers, community pubs and brewers, costing thousands of vital jobs".

During his hospital visit, the prime minister criticised the "reckless" behaviour of an "irresponsible" minority and cited figures suggesting alcohol-related costs to society could total between £17bn and £22bn a year.

'Sense of respect'

He said the last decade had seen a "frightening growth" in the number of people who thought it was "acceptable for people to get drunk in public in ways that wreck lives, spread fear and increase crime", many of them under the legal drinking age.

Figures suggest alcohol abuse costs accident and emergency services £1bn.

Mr Cameron promised to help the NHS "rise to the challenge", including putting more police on patrol in hospitals.

Media caption,
GP Peter Baines: "Right to focus on alcohol and the problems it can cause"

"We need innovative solutions to confront the rising tide of unacceptable behaviour," he said.

"This isn't just about more rules and regulation. It's about responsibility and a sense of respect for others."

He added: "Every Friday and Saturday night A&E can be overrun with people drunk and incapable who have injured themselves."

Mr Cameron urged the drinks industry, supermarkets, pubs and clubs to work with the government to ensure that "responsible drinking becomes a reality and not just a slogan".

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group which represents drinks producers, said his members were "determined to be effective partners in tackling public drunkenness, which is an embarrassment to us all".

Simon Antrobus, chief executive of alcohol treatment charity Addaction, said that while it was important to ensure drinks retailers took more responsibility, properly-funded support for charities helping problem drinkers was also vital.

"Addressing the root cause of someone's problems is, in our professional experience, the most effective way to tackle their drinking," he said.

For Labour, shadow health minister Jamie Reed said: "There's undoubtedly an important debate to be had about alcohol and when the government publishes its long-awaited strategy we'll play our part.

"But today's warm words from the prime minister look hastily thrown together. On a day when over 100,000 members of the public have joined NHS staff in calling on David Cameron to drop his reckless Health Bill, he is dodging the difficult questions and desperately trying to distract attention."

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