The prime minister has announced plans to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol in England in a bid to ease the pressure drink-related cases are placing on the health service.
David Cameron said he was making “no excuses” for clamping down on the country’s drink problem but admitted minimum pricing would not be “universally popular”.
The move, which was announced alongside a ban on the sale of alcohol multi-buy discount deals, was met with opposition from the drinks industry, with some accusing Mr Cameron of being “seriously misguided”.
Retailers and drinks firms said the policy was also at odds with the “responsibility deal” between alcohol companies and the government, overseen by Andrew Lansley.
Mr Lansley is known to be against tighter regulation of the sector and has previously described minimum pricing as an “absurd” tool for tackling drink abuse.
Today’s Alcohol Strategy is intended to “turn the tide” against irresponsible drinking, which costs the UK an estimated £21bn a year.
It sets out plans for a minimum unit price, possibly 40p, bans the sale of multi-buy discount deals and introduces a “zero tolerance” approach to drunken behaviour in A&E departments.
It also suggests a late-night levy to get pubs and clubs to help pay for policing and improved powers to stop serving alcohol to drunks.
The government hopes minimum pricing will spell the end of cheap white ciders, spirits and super-strength lagers.
Mr Cameron said a minimum price would, for the first time, make it illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than a set price per unit.
“We’re consulting on the actual price, but if it is 40p that could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year by the end of the decade.
“This isn’t about stopping responsible drinking, adding burdens on business or some new kind of stealth tax - it’s about fast immediate action where universal change is needed.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, of the Royal College of Physicians and the Alcohol Health Alliance, added: “Healthcare workers who struggle every day to cope with the impact of our nation’s unhealthy drinking will welcome tough new policies in areas such as price and licensing that are based on evidence and should bring about real benefits.”
The announcement from Downing Street came just after Mr Lansley made his own announcement on the responsibility deal, saying the voluntary agreement with firms “works”.
He said alcohol companies and retailers had pledged to cut a billion units of alcohol from their drinks over the next few years.
“The responsibility deal shows what can be achieved for individuals and families when we work together with industry,” he said.
“We know this is an ambitious challenge to work in this way but our successes so far clearly demonstrate it works.”