Page last updated at 13:07 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

'I drank 15 cans a day'

As MPs call for a minimum price to be set for alcohol, BBC Radio 5 Live reporter Chris Mason meets some of those who say cut-price drinks ruined their lives.

Denis Rogers
Dennis Rogers describes super-strong lagers as "poison"

"I used to drink at least 15 cans a day. It's brain damage stuff. It's poison."

For years, Dennis Rogers, 49, was a rough sleeper. And for years he was hooked on super-strength lager.

A half-litre can of Tennents Super contains four-and-a-half units of alcohol. That is more than the recommended daily maximum for either a man or a woman. It is 9% proof and it costs just £1.

On the side of the can is a message asking people to drink responsibly. But Dennis did not.

"It got so bad if I didn't have a can in the morning I wouldn't be able to walk. So I used to crawl to my local off licence, get a crate of lager, and then would have to sit outside the offie and drink a few cans before I could stand up and take them home."

Dennis has strong views on what he describes as the "poison" that could have killed him.

And he agrees with the Commons health select committee's call for minimum pricing of alcohol.

'Save lives'

"Personally, I'd ban the super-strength drinks. But I accept that's never going to happen. So the other option is to crank up the price of them to put people off."

The select committee, chaired by Labour MP Kevin Barron, says that setting a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, to curb excessive drinking in England, could save more than 3,000 lives a year.

I talk to Dennis at Graham House in Vauxhall, south London. It is one of five hostels for the homeless run by the charity Thames Reach.

Dennis used to live here, but having stopped drinking he now has his own place.

He is not the only one here with strong views on regulating alcohol.

Jeremy Swain
Super-strength ciders and lagers are the biggest worries for us, in terms of the hierarchy of substances on the streets
Jeremy Swain, Thames Reach

"I've got really bad cirrhosis of the liver," fellow former resident Maz Albrecht tells me. "It is at the stage where the damage that has been done can't be repaired.

"I have worked it out that I have got more dead friends than I have living friends through drinking too much."

Maz was a problem drinker for 30 years. For 20 of those, she would binge daily on super-strength lagers.

"I wish the bosses of these companies who make the super-strength drinks would actually come down and see the damage that their alcohol does," Maz, 48, adds.

Graham House is a warm and welcoming hostel - with a whiff of alcohol.

Jeremy Swain, the chief executive of Thames Reach, thinks it would be counterproductive to ban people from drinking here - most residents are alcoholics, and they would be on the street in the snow if they were not allowed in with a can.

Mr Swain is campaigning for minimum pricing of alcohol per unit to make sure super-strength, and super-cheap, alcohol is no longer quite so cheap.

He has lobbied MPs and questioned the drinks industry and he welcomes the select committee's recommendations.

"Super-strength ciders and lagers are the biggest worries for us, in terms of the hierarchy of substances on the streets. Third we have heroin. Second we have crack cocaine. Easily top of the league table are the super-strength lagers and ciders," he says.

The select committee argues that introducing a minimum price of 50p per alcoholic unit would save 3,000 lives a year. It would bump up the price of a can of Tennents Super from £1 to at least £2.25.

But the government, the Conservatives and the drinks industry are not convinced minimum pricing is practical - or politically tenable.

Tennents has not responded to the BBC's requests for a comment but Brigid Simmonds of the British Beer and Pub Association said a minimum price "while undoubtedly well intentioned, it would be ineffective in practice".

She said: "We need smarter policies that are more accurately targeted at specific problem areas rather than blanket policies that restrict the freedoms and choices of everyone."

MPs on the select committee accept their ideas are bold - and might be dismissed initially.

But chairman Kevin Barron says much the same was said about the committee's suggestion to ban smoking in public places not that many years ago.

For Mr Swain, at Thames Reach, it is time for ministers to act.

"We are not going to solve the problem without help from government because the super strength lagers are too attractive," he says.

"They are too cheap. We know from all the research that we have to increase the cost of drink, which reduces availability and saves lives. It is as simple as that."

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