Alcohol sale reform won't resolve binge-drinking, say critics

The Government's watered-down plans to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price will not resolve the problem of binge-drinking, campaigners said today.

Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire said the move was an important first step towards banning below-cost sales of alcohol.

But critics said the ban did not go far enough, making it a "green light for supermarkets to keep selling booze at pocket-money prices".

The ban was promised as part of efforts to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder which costs the taxpayer up to 13 billion each year.

But the much-touted move will see cost price defined as just duty plus VAT and will have little if any impact on cut-price supermarket deals, campaigners said.

A can of lager will cost at least 38p and a litre of vodka at least 10.71 under the move.

It will be seen as a retreat from the coalition Government's pledge to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price and will stop short of setting a minimum price for the alcohol itself.

Mr Brokenshire said: "By introducing this new measure we are sending a clear message that the Government will not stand by and let drink be sold so cheaply that it leads to a greater risk of health harms or drunken violence."

He went on: "We know that pricing controls can help reduce alcohol-related violent crime and this is a crucial step in tackling the availability of cheap alcohol.

"In nearly half of all violent incidents the offender is believed to be under the influence of alcohol.

"That's why we believe it is right to tackle the worst instances of deep discounting."

Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, said for any ban to have a meaningful impact it was vital that the cost of alcohol production was factored in, producing a minimum price for beer of around 40p a unit - double what is being proposed.

Mike Benner, Camra's chief executive, said: "Today's decision means pubs will continue to close as they are undercut by supermarkets selling canned beers at pocket- money prices.

"A ban on selling beer at below duty plus VAT will have a negligible impact as supermarkets sell only a tiny proportion of beer at below these levels."

He branded the Government's plans "a betrayal of their previous promise to ban the sale of alcohol at below cost".

"It is a blow to pubgoers," he said.

"The Government appear all too ready to impose higher costs and regulations on well-run community pubs but are prepared to turn a blind eye to the irresponsible attitude towards alcohol expressed by the supermarkets."

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, also warned that the move "will not go any way towards resolving this country's binge drinking problem".

"Duty is so low in the UK that it will still be possible to sell very cheap alcohol and be within the law," he said.

"The Government needs to look again at a minimum price per unit of alcohol. That is the only evidence-based approach that will end cheap discounts once and for all."

Doctors' leaders also warned the ban "doesn't go far enough".

"It's not minimum pricing, it's not really going to make that much difference," a spokeswoman for the British Medical Association (BMA) said.

"What we're calling for is tough action."

The British Beer and Pub Association added that while the ban "will stamp out the worst cases of below-cost selling", "it will not have a significant impact on low-priced alcohol in supermarkets".

Chief executive Brigid Simmonds added: "With 70% of alcohol now sold in the off-trade, there is a real need for the Government to do more to support the pub."

The proposed ban was left out of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill in November, which included a major shake-up of the licensing laws.

It is understood that defining cost price as anything other than duty plus VAT would have created serious legal difficulties, especially if it was seen to create a minimum price for alcohol.

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on the future of pubs last month, Tory MP Andrew Griffiths warned that European competition laws and interference from Brussels "prevents us from clearly targeting" what below-cost pricing means.

But the MP for Burton and Uttoxeter, who is also secretary of the all-party Parliamentary Group for the Misuse of Drugs and Alcohol, added that if a solution could not be found, an off-sales tax, which would help to level the playing field between supermarkets and pubs, should be considered.

But today's ban will only have the effect of setting the lowest level at which different strengths of alcohol can be sold - the equivalent of not less than 38p for a 440ml can of lager (4.2% ABV) and 10.71 for a one litre bottle of vodka (37.5% ABV).

Drinks giant Diageo, which is against any below-cost ban, said the move was "the least distorting option worthy of further consideration".

A spokeswoman for the firm, which makes Guinness, Smirnoff and Baileys, said: "We believe that any such ban would be ineffective as there is no credible evidence of the efficacy of pricing interventions in tackling alcohol-related harm.

"We believe that the Government should concentrate on raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol misuse for adults, providing effective education on alcohol for under-18s and enforcing existing legislation on licensing and under-age sales."

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association said it backed the duty plus VAT approach "on the basis that these are both consumer taxes and therefore the cost should be passed on to the consumer".

"It is important this policy is applied nationally," a spokesman said.

"We are sure ministers will want to ensure it is not undermined by separate and different price initiatives by local authorities.

"It's equally vital to recognise that alcohol pricing and taxation cannot provide the solution to alcohol misuse. What's needed is education and rigorous enforcement of laws to address misuse and related anti-social behaviour."

Chris Sorek, chief executive of the charity Drinkaware, added that a range of measures were needed to tackle alcohol-related problems.

"As supply and price are not the only factors driving alcohol misuse, it is imperative that we challenge people's relationship with alcohol as well," he said.

Molson Coors warned that the ban could legitimise driving prices even lower.

Mark Hunter, chief executive of the brewer in the UK & Ireland, said: "We believe that a ban on below-cost selling where a nominal cost is defined would address key policy issues, and be an effective, enforceable, easy-to-administer solution.

"Tax is not a proxy for cost so this will not address problem prices and could legitimise driving them even lower."

Shadow home office minister Diana Johnson accused the Government of "backing away from measures which would get at the real problem".

"The real test of a measure like this is whether it will work and a number of experts have warned these proposals won't change a great deal at all," she said.

"We've been clear that if pricing, alongside the action we took in government banning a range of drinks promotions, can help tackle irresponsible retailing then it's worth considering.

"But the Government has given us little evidence that what they are proposing will make the difference."

The Home Office said the ban was part of wider a cross-government strategy to change attitudes to binge drinking.