A group of MPs have declared war on the cheap supermarket alcohol, which they say is blighting Britain and damaging community pubs.
Introducing a minimum unit price on alcohol is "the most powerful tool at the disposal of a Government" to deal with alcohol abuse, the influential Health Select Committee has claimed.
The hard hitting report claims the drinks industry is "dependent on hazardous and harmful drinkers for three-quarters of its sales and if people drank responsibly, alcohol sales would plummet by 40%".
The report flatly rejects the "myth" that minimum pricing would unfairly affect moderate drinkers. Taking research from the Sheffield study, commissioned by the Health Department in 2008, it said a minimum price of 40p a unit would cost moderate drinkers (6 units a week) only 11p more than at present.
It said a minimum price should be introduced for the following reasons:
• It would affect most of those who drink cheap alcohol — particularly the young and low-income who suffer most from liver disease
• It estimates a minimum price of 50p a unit would save 3,000 lives a year and 40p a unit 1,100 lives.
• Unlike rises in duty (which supermarkets can absorb) it would benefit traditional pubs and discourage pre-loading.
• It would encourage a switch to weaker beers
MP and former practicing doctor Richard Taylor slammed the "absolutely ridiculous" promotions in some supermarkets where alcohol was available for as little as 10p a unit.
"We have got to tackle supermarkets head on. It is the only way to reduce the terrible burden of illness."
Labour MP Charlotte Atkins said minimum pricing would in fact "bolster pubs" and that in turn would encourage responsible drinking. "People can go to pubs and enjoy the culture of the pub and learn English culture," she said.
Stephen Hesford hailed the "benchmark inquiry" and likened it to the health report of 1999, which recommended a smoking ban. "It may not happen tomorrow but it certainly will happen," he said.
However, the committee was split on the issue of minimum pricing. Conservative MP Peter Bone said he believed that minimum pricing had "no relevance to alcohol consumption" and was instead in favour increasing duty.
The report also said that duty must be increased year on year in line with the introduction of a minimum price so as not to increase the profits of the supermarkets.
It wants duty on spirits to be returned in stages to the same percentage of average earnings as in the 1980s (11%) and a lower duty on weaker beer (below 2.8% abv) with an increase on industrial white cider.
It also urged the Government to seek changes from the EU to raise the strength of beer which can be subject to a lower duty rate.
The Committee believes that there is a public health exemption in European Competition laws for setting a minimum price on alcohol. "This example has been succesfully used by the French Government to ban alcohol advertising and sponsorship in certain circumstances, winning a number of cases in the European Court of Justice, which were bought by the alcohol industry."
The report also draws ideas from Scotland and calls for alcohol to be limited to one aisle. It claims there are "too many irresponsible off-licences" and suggests limits could be put on the number of outlets selling alcohol in an area by introducing health as a licensing objective as it is in Scotland.
Chairman Barron said that supermarkets wealded a "great deal of influence" on the Government and that more attention was often paid to the alcohol industry rather than health experts.
The report also called for tougher measures on alcohol advertising, particularly in regard to social networking websites, and slammed the DCMS for showing "extraordinary naivety" in believeing the Licensing Act would create a "civilised cafe culture". It also called for greater enforcement of the Licensing Act and in particular for police to get tough on venues who serve drunk customers.
Iain Loe, Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) national spokesperson, said: "CAMRA welcomes the call by the Committee for the introduction of a minimum price per alcohol unit which will benefit community pubs by curbing the below cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets which can fuel pre-loading.
"We also welcome their suggestion that the Government should introduce a reduced rate of duty on beers below 2.8%."