13 Mar 2013

PM: Supermarket sale of cheap booze ‘has got to change’

I am “determined” to deal with the problem of cut-price alcohol sold by supermarkets, pledges David Cameron as he faces criticism from doctors for dropping a plan to bring in minimum pricing.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has told the prime minister to “be courageous” and take a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives” amid feverish speculation that plans to ban cheap beers and spirits are set to be shelved when George Osborne makes his budget announcement next week.

Under the proposals, which were originally backed by David Cameron and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a minimum price of 45p per unit would be set in Englnd and Wales in an attempt to reduce binge-drinking. However, the plans have been opposed by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and her Liberal Democrat deputy Jeremy Browne.

But this afternoon he stopped short of saying ministers would introduce a base price on cheap booze.

Mr Cameron said: “There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores and I am absolutely determined that we will deal with this.

“We have published proposals. We are looking at the consultation and the results to those proposals but, be in no doubt, we have got to deal with the problem of having 20p or 25p cans of lager available in supermarkets. It’s got to change.”

His comments came in Prime Minister’s Questions after Tory former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes), who has campaigned for a minimum price to be introduced, asked him about the Government’s plans.

She said: “When alcohol is too cheap, more people die. I know you want to reduce avoidable, early mortality and cut violent crime.

“Will you meet with me for you to understand the evidence base behind minimum pricing and how abandoning this policy would critically undermine future efforts of those who want to do something about it?”

Mr Cameron said he would be prepared to meet with Dr Wollaston to discuss the Government’s plans.

Commenting on the debate a Morrisons spokesperson said: “It would be a matter of unprecedented intervention for the Government to set the retail price of a product. It would go against all the basic rules of competitive markets. If the Government is certain that price is the best way of addressing problem drinking then it already has the levers available through duty and VAT.”

Sainsburys refused to comment while other supermarketx are yet to respond.

Education Secretary Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley, the Commons leader, also share reservations, with opponents warning the measure would disproportionately hit responsible poorer drinkers and would amount to a form of “state nannying”.

Gift for the opposition

The division across the coalition has been seized upon by the opposition. Shadow Home Office minister Diana Johnson said: “Theresa May and David Cameron have announced a minimum alcohol price twice in the last 12 months. Now we hear reports the Home Secretary has changed her mind on her own policy and wants to u-turn.

“This is weak leadership and weak government. The home secretary and the prime minister said this measure would cut crime and prevent alcohol abuse. What’s changed?”

And Labour Leader Ed Miliband used the issue to launch a scathing attack on David Cameron in prime minister’s questions this afternoon.

GPs wade in

Meanwhile Dr Vivienne Nathanson, director of professional activities at the BMA, said the impact on them would be a “tiny amount” of 30p-40p per week that would be outweighed by the benefits.

Asked what the BMA’s message would be to the prime minister, she said this morning: “Be courageous: this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, to save the country money. Both of those are very good deals for him.

“And it will get him the thanks of an awful lot of people. Not just doctors and nurses but also the families of problem drinkers who desperately want the government to do something to help them help the people they love to kick the habit and to save their lives.”

Meanwhile the heightened speculation that the proposals could be dropped sparked dismay among some Tory backbenchers. Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston – a former GP – wrote: “Very concerned about suggestion that minimum pricing to be dropped from alcohol strategy.”

Fellow Conservative Tracey Crouch said: “I really hope rumours of U-turn on minimum unit pricing for alcohol are not true. We must tackle problem of easily accessible cheap alcohol.”

But Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said consumers would welcome the move. “Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge-drinker. Evidence has also shown it will do little to tackle problem drinking,” he said.