Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

North East health bosses call for minimum alcohol price

Troubled man drinking wine
Alcohol misuse is a major problem for the NHS

Health bosses in the North East have urged the government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.

Thirteen directors of public health have signed an open letter to ministers condemning the sale of alcohol at "pocket money prices".

The call coincides with a study from the region's alcohol awareness group, Balance, which says a can of lager can be bought for just 22p.

Supermarkets say they already have checks in place and act responsibly.

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, which is funded by the Department of Health, North East NHS trusts and the region's three police forces, said supermarket prices for alcohol were "ridiculously low".

He said: "Alcohol is a primary instigator in violent crime, increases hospital admissions which drain vital NHS resources and encourages absenteeism and causes disability.

'Ridiculously low'

"Supermarkets aggressively promote alcohol, which they routinely sell below cost to encourage shoppers through their doors.

"The ridiculously low prices make it clear that alcohol pricing cannot be left to supermarkets and off licences alone."

Among those who have signed the letter are Sue Milner, director of public health for Northumberland, Nonnie Crawford, director of public health in Sunderland, Meng Khaw, director of public health for Newcastle and North Tyneside and Miriam Davidson, director of public health in Darlington.

Extract from open letter
As directors of public health in the North East, we are calling upon the Government to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol to tackle the widespread availability of cheap drink which is having a devastating effect on our region.

We know that low prices are linked to greater consumption. We also know that the more we drink, the greater the health risk.

It is clear that we need to bring about a change which clamps down of the sale of cheap alcohol if we are to address the damage that alcohol is doing.

Durham Chief Constable John Stoddart said: "While illegal drugs tend to get all the headlines, the issue of alcohol misuse presents us with serious problems right across the whole spectrum of criminality."

Balance said alcohol-related hospital admissions across the North East were 62% higher than the national average and that the region's police forces dealt with more than 6,000 domestic abuse cases where alcohol was a factor between 2008 and 2009.

Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium said: "Irresponsible drinking is a cultural issue. It's about the way we are brought up and our attitude to alcohol.

"We have the highest alcohol taxes in Europe in the UK and that tells me there is not the direct relationship between price and irresponsible consumption."

Last month Home Secretary Alan Johnson told the BBC he had not ruled out the possibility of using pricing measures to make alcohol less easily available, but such a move was not "a magic bullet".

He said: "We don't want to ensure that people... on good incomes can just carry on as normal, but responsible drinkers on low incomes are hit."

In Scotland, the government is pushing for a minimum price for alcohol to tackle drink-related problems.

Laws requiring young people to prove their age were introduced in the country last year.

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