Premier pressured to set minimum price for booze

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DAVID Cameron is facing fresh pressure from coalition MPs to take a tougher stand against problem drinking by introducing a minimum price for alcohol.

Tory MP and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston led calls for the Government to rethink its reluctance to introduce minimum pricing yesterday and claimed it could help tackle a binge-drinking culture.

Health Minister Anne Milton said the Government would “continue to review all the evidence”, fuelling speculation the Prime Minister is coming round to the idea.

But Shipley MP Philip Davies condemned any such move as a sign of a “nanny state” and said anyone claiming minimum prices would stop young people binge drinking was “living in complete cloud cuckoo land”.

Amid mounting concern over the health and social impact of high levels of binge drinking, a Government-commissioned report by experts at the University of Sheffield claimed setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol could save the NHS billions of pounds and cut crime and disorder.

In opposition the Tories were sceptical of the idea, fearing it would punish moderate drinkers, and Labour also shied away from such a move.

But there are renewed moves to persuade the Government to change its mind and follow Scotland by stopping pubs and retailers from selling below an agreed price.

Dr Wollaston told a Westminster Hall debate that alcohol contributes to 22,000 deaths in Britain every year and costs the country £20bn.

“There is no such thing as a cheap cheap drink,” she said. “We are all paying a very high price.”

She added: “Without action on pricing I’m afraid nothing else is going to be as effective as it can be.”

But Mr Davies said people who argue for stricter controls on alcohol sales will “never be satisfied” and would come back for more. He claimed the ultimate agenda could be to have alcohol banned.

“I had hoped the country had escaped from the ‘nanny state’ health policy with the end of the last government,” he added.

“The process of setting a minimum price is predicated on the assumption that raising the price of alcohol will make those who misuse alcohol behave differently. But this is an incredibly simplistic belief.”

Ms Milton said a Government strategy on alcohol will be published “in the coming weeks” and will include a series of measures.

“The fact is, shops sell alcohol at a loss to get customers through the door. That can encourage binge drinking and that is why we are committed to banning sales below cost. There are many ways to achieve this aim and we will continue to review all the evidence.”

Dr Wollaston was also joined by Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Gilbert yesterday in arguing for minimum pricing, claiming responsible drinkers would only be £12 a year worse off.