Page last updated at 07:39 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 08:39 UK

Tesco backs minimum price for alcohol sales

By Branwen Jeffreys
Health correspondent, BBC News

Lucy Neville-Rolfe said retailers had to do more on alcohol-related problems

Supermarket chain Tesco says it wants to see curbs on the sale of cheap alcohol during this Parliament.

Tesco has welcomed a promise by the coalition government to ban below-cost sales of alcohol in England and Wales.

The UK's biggest retailer goes further, saying it would back the more radical step of introducing a minimum price.

Tesco says polling for the company found excessive drinking and the anti-social behaviour it causes is one of the public's most serious concerns.

Significant discounts

The idea of a minimum price is already being considered by the Scottish Parliament.

During the World Cup, most retailers - including Tesco - are expected to offer significant discounts on alcohol.

In an exclusive BBC interview, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's director for corporate affairs, says in the absence of government action they have to compete on price.

"As a result there is lots of cheap alcohol, so we thought let's ask the government to look at should there be a minimum price for alcohol, or should there be a ban on low-cost selling.

"Could it be justified because it will deal with the problem at the lower end?"

The British Liver Trust backed Tesco's decision.

The coalition government has said it will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he welcomed Tesco's "swift decision" to support the ban.

"There is a vast social and financial cost attached to irresponsible drinking. We need to tackle not only issues of supply but also the behavioural drivers that lead to irresponsible behaviour".

Cultural issue

It is not clear how the ban on selling alcohol below cost price could be enforced as retailers would be reluctant to reveal commercially sensitive details of deals with suppliers.

One option might be to set a nominal price for each type of alcohol, then add the cost of VAT and duty to reach a total.

It is an option which falls short of the minimum price which the British Medical Association and many other health charities and doctors' organisations have been championing.

Mr Lansley said current evidence did not support its introduction.

Even the proposals for a ban on below-cost sales and a review of price and taxation have been attacked by other retailers.

The fact is that a lot of people drink to get drunk, and therefore if you make alcohol more available and cheaper it fuels that problem
Peter Fahy
Greater Manchester Police

Andrew Opie, from the British Retail Consortium, said: "Irresponsible alcohol consumption is not about price, it's a cultural issue. Below-cost selling is simply not the widespread practice portrayed."

Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Peter Fahy agreed that there was a British culture of excessive drinking that was encouraged by low prices.

"Culture is created by things like the price and we do have a culture in this country of people drinking to excess," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"The fact is that a lot of people drink to get drunk, and therefore if you make alcohol more available and cheaper it fuels that problem."

He said he was very pleased that the price of alcohol was being addressed because of the "huge impact" it has "on both the police service and the health service".

Mr Fahy also said there was a strong link between domestic violence and people drinking excessively at home.

'Big voice'

In Scotland a bill that would introduce minimum pricing per unit of alcohol is going through the Holyrood parliament and will face crucial votes later this year.

Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon welcomed Tesco's change of heart on the issue.

"Tesco is a big voice and will make a difference. What's particularly encouraging is that Tesco are saying they're making this shift in position as a result of the views of their customers - because I think there is a sea change under way in public opinion.

"People increasingly understand the damage that alcohol misuse is doing."

Alcohol policy is a particularly challenging area for the Liberal Democrats.

In the run-up to the Westminster elections they backed the idea of minimum pricing, but in Scotland they have so far not declared their hand.

Lib Dem votes would effectively decide whether the minority SNP administration could get the measure through to become the first country in the world to have a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

We asked you for your views on alcohol pricing. Please find a selection of your comments below.

I find this talk of minimum pricing or banning low cost drink sales abhorrent on the basis that these policies essentially say that alcoholism is a disease of the poor and that by raising the price you stop their drinking and thus the problem. This attitude is patronising, classist and incorrect. Drinking to get drunk is a cultural issue and is in no way confined to people on low incomes; how many times do you see drunken middleclass nitwits or managerial types in town centres being obnoxious? A far more sophisticated course of action is required than this dangerously simplistic "lets legislate everything" approach that has become common in the past two decades. Society as a whole needs more common sense, including the politicians, rather than finding scapegoats for issues and banning anything that moves.
Jamie, East Midlands

This move is not before time. Pubs on the whole have got their act together, but supermarkets will sell well below cost just to get you in. I know for a fact that people buy cheap beer and then sell it on to kids making a nice killing. Do you see 10, 12 and 14 year olds falling out of pubs hammered? No. Go to any park on any night and you'll see the above off their heads on supermarket lager, wine and cider. Please don't trot out the old "it hits the normal person" as that no longer works. We have a problem and we need to get our heads out of the sand and do something and this is a start!
Tony H, Manchester

The abuse of alcohol, which is a dangerous drug, is now ridiculous. Simply control price, only allow alcohol sales in pubs, clubs, and off-licenses, rather than in shops and supermarkets, and reintroduce licensing hours. The abusers should not be allowed to impact on the lives of those who are not dependent on this drug for their enjoyment.
Tim Lyon, Ascott under Wychwood, Oxfordshire

Government should be tough on alcohol sales if they are very serious about the harm caused by alcohol misuse. Setting up a minimum price on alcohol and banning below cost sales of alcohol should be implemented. Also, alcohol should be sold in a separate place where shopkeepers can validate the age of each customer. On top of that, supermarkets should stopping selling alcohol after 10pm.
Noriko Cable, Leighton Buzzard

There is no need for a supermarket to compete on price if they feel they have a moral obligation not to make alcohol available cheaply. The reason Tesco is likely to enjoy a minimum price is that it increases the profit margins they make by law. It is unlikely Tesco will pass this price increase on to its suppliers and brewers. I'd love it if the government passed it into law that I must be paid 50% more money!
Charles, Oxfordshire

I'm not quite sure what the government is trying to achieve with these minimum prices, apart from obviously higher revenue through taxing. In some places I'm sure the statistics will show it to be quite effective and there will be less occurrences of binge drinking there, but I'm sure that it will still happen, and when it does, it will be worse. Rather than a couple of people going out on the town, it will become a large group as people won't have enough money to do it in small numbers regularly. It will also displease a large number of low income families or individuals, for example young folk. The majority of us - I happen to be 18 - are very responsible with alcohol, only going overboard occasionally at parties, but never in public, and that's all part of growing up. If this minimum price law is passed then all it will do is upset the responsible drinkers, while the binge-drinking alcoholics simply continue spending more and more money to feed their addiction, leaving less money to feed their families.
Chris Warden, Fareham, Hampshire

The suggested price of 50p per unit of alcohol seems by far and away the best approach. It would not affect drinkers of most mainstream drinks as they are already above this price. It would affect the selling of the low cost/high strength beverages. This would reduce consumption.
David Lording, Hereford

I'm not sure how many people have a drink problem and buy alcohol from supermarkets, but yet again, this appears to be a big hammer to hit a smaller nail. I buy alcohol from supermarkets for occasional use at home and for social events from time to time. My budget is limited, and a rise in price would hit me and everyone else who enjoys an occasional tipple but is sensible about drinking. Those who want to drink will find the money, whatever the cost, just as they do for cigarettes and illegal drugs. More may even turn to crime to fund it. But still the government gets their tax, and retailers and suppliers make even more money. Excellent idea...!
Ria, Windsor

Whilst I applaud the initiative to curb binge drinking and moreover underage drinking, most of the public at large are responsible in their consumption of alcohol. I feel that the government is punishing so many for the actions of so few. They did a similar thing to this in Sweden during the 80s and as a result, put the everyday drinking of alcohol out of reach of the masses. They are consequently a more sober nation but are paying £7 to £8 for a pint. Given the tax revenue derived from the sale of alcohol, can the government afford to do this? It will lead to an immediate drop in consumption.
Dave Kelly, Kirkby, Liverpool

These rules come from a nanny state that penalises the majority of drinkers that can and do consume responsibly. Why would a large supermarket firm driven by profits not want some sort of intervention on this issue? It allows them to no longer promote loss leaders and thus generates more profits for them. We need to raise awareness of the issues of alcoholism instead. Sadly the supermarkets won't be getting a contribution from me as I will be buying in bulk from France.
Matt, Suffolk

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