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Minimum alcohol pricing 'probably illegal'

Setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol is "probably illegal", the public health minister has claimed.

Anne Milton told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, ongoing discussions are being held with the Treasury to decide how alcohol pricing can encourage safer drinking.

She claims measures already taken - such as raising the tax levels on beer with more than 7.5% alcohol strength and reducing taxation on 'weaker' beer (less than 2.5%) are seeing a response from the alcohol industry.

"We have seen the industry dropping alcohol strength in order to get below that duty level," she said.

"There is no doubt about it, price can manipulate the market, so increasing duty on high-strength alcohol is not a bad idea, because for every litre sold there is less alcohol in it, which is a move in the right direction."

Milton cites research showing a third of population drink 80% of total alcohol consumed, implying price changes will not be enough to change habits in problem drinkers.

Scotland plans to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol, but Milton has casted doubts over the proposals, arguing it will be "challenged" as it contradicts European trade laws.

She told MPs the first step in changing behaviour is making people aware of the harm alcohol causes.

"While there is an acceptance of the harm being overweight and smoking causes, there isn't the same acceptance in alcohol," she said.

"That is a message we haven't got through in our guidelines."

In a statement to NiP, Simon Antrobus, Chief Executive of Addaction, said while he understands that trade laws "could cause a problem for setting a minimum price", he claims there are many other measures that can be taken to bring down consumption.

Antrobus points to the changes in attitudes to smoking over the last 20 years and claims this is evidence that the public's view "can change if they are in full receipt of the facts". 

"That kind of shift [such as smoking] needs to happen with drinking," he said.

"We need to fully appreciate that alcohol is far from harmless."

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"Setting a price for the unit of volume of alcohol may be helpful in curtailing our youngsters street brawling behaviour" - this is not true, in fact our youngsters are far more likely to spend what little money they have buying smaller amounts of the strongest type of alcohol they can find. Meaning that rather than youths loitering in bus stops drinking litre bottles of cider, we will see them hanging around bus stops drinking 'small' bottles of whiskey or vodka. I don't see how that is an
improvement. There no quick fix for this issue it has taken many years, no decades for it to reach this level. There is only real solution - education - and to be clear I don't mean the usual scaremongering (such as been applied to cannabis) I mean real factual education. In addition whilst the "street brawling" issue may be fuelled by alcohol its engine is in peer pressure, and its design has come from the huge social immobility facing our impoverished youngster. Tony Blair had the right idea. Education is the solution" - James McBain, Greater Manchester

"As we are aware drinking alcohol is just as bad and can be become addictive as well. Setting a price for the unit of volume of alcohol maybe helpful in curtailing our youngsters street brawling behaviours. Less money in their pockets maybe will help them to buy weaker strength that will not affect their concentration and help to portray decent attitude" - Hilda Singh, Enfield