The damaging effects of binge drinking would be eased by introducing a minimum price for alcohol, a Westcountry MP has claimed.
But Dr Sarah Wollaston says ending "pocket money-priced" drink deals offered by supermarkets will not hit community pubs and sensible drinkers in the pocket.
"Once we have waved goodbye to drunken behaviour in our town centres, we won't want it back," the former GP, now Conservative MP for Totnes, writes in today's Western Morning News. "Minimum pricing works."
Her comments come as the Government will shortly publish its long-awaited alcohol strategy.
Ministers have said that minimum pricing would contravene EU law. But David Cameron has indicated support for using pricing to tackle anti-social behaviour and its multi-billion-pound costs.
The Scottish Parliament is considering minimum prices for a pint of bitter at about £1.20 and a large glass of wine at £1.50. A similar policy could have implications for the Westcountry, where drinking blights coastal towns and pubs are at the heart of rural life.
Westcountry MP Sarah Wollaston argues minimum pricing of alcohol would tackle binge drinking – but would not hit the price of a pint in a pub
Many of us are tempted by the cheap offers on alcohol in supermarkets – but who subsidises these deals?
Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, neither is there such a thing as an ultra-cheap drink. An alcohol loss-leader in your local supermarket is paid for by higher sales of other goods sold at relatively inflated prices.
The data on alcohol sales shows people on low incomes are more likely to spend nothing on alcohol but are nevertheless subsidising everyone else’s.
That said, those on lower incomes who do drink excessively are over-represented by young binge drinkers who actively target the cheap deals.
The heaviest drinkers pay on average 40 per cent less per unit on their alcohol but it is this same group of drinkers which costs the NHS and criminal justice system so much.
Alcohol-related issues cost the taxpayer £20 billion a year and much more if the full social and indirect costs are taken into account.
The argument that minimum pricing penalises those on low incomes fails to address the hard facts about who suffers most as a result of alcohol-related crime including violence and anti-social behaviour.
Low income neighbourhoods bear the brunt of these problems and anyone spending time talking to our local police will know that alcohol provokes or exacerbates so many of the situations they are called to deal with.
How often do you read of lives ruined not only for the victim but also their mindless drunken attacker? How often are these assaults carried out by those same young binge drinkers who have pre-loaded on cheap supermarket booze before a night out?
Even where alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices – not as a loss-leader but because it is dirt cheap to produce, like white cider – the true cost of selling this at rock bottom prices is passed on both to the taxpayer and to victims of crime.
More than 700,000 children in England live with a parent who is dependent on alcohol and about half of domestic violence is triggered or exacerbated by alcohol.
Likewise, half of those in some of our prisons, including killers, report that alcohol was in some way responsible for their offence.
And anyone who has visited a casualty department on a Friday or Saturday night will know why they are waiting so long for treatment as the drunks stagger past them in the queue.
And after picking up the bill for all this, if you still feel that minimum pricing will suck all the fun out of a decent party, it is worth looking at what it would mean in practice. The fact is that it doesn’t translate into expensive alcohol.
The Scottish Parliament is looking at minimum pricing somewhere between 40p and 50p per unit. It would make sense for this to be harmonised across the UK.
The reality is that this would have no effect whatever on the price of alcohol in our pubs and would actually help to reverse the decline in social drinking in those pubs that has seen so many forced out of business.
This is not about imposing a “nanny state” and as a Conservative, I’m not a fan of meaningless over-regulation. That said, I’m convinced that if a problem is serious enough and costing so much, we should look at the evidence for what might solve it.
The sad fact is that education has very little impact – just telling teenagers that getting drunk is bad for them has patently not worked.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t educate, although I do not think that should be in the hands of the drinks industry through bodies like Drinkaware. There is good evidence that early intervention through GPs and casualty departments for harmful drinkers can make a difference and that £1 spent saves around £5 through preventing long-term problems.
I do not think that the drinks industry should have control over the regulation of advertising and marketing through the Portman Group.
Finally I think that we have all been inconvenienced by drunks for long enough and I think the public would like to see them inconvenienced in return.
Fines have little impact on those charged with an alcohol-related offence but forcing them to turn up twice daily, at their expense, for breathalysing has shown promising results in South Dakota, USA.
Let’s pilot that in the UK to see if it works here. Let’s make greater use of restorative justice where offenders have to apologise to their victims and understand the impact their behaviour has on their communities.
Just like the ban on smoking in public places, once we have waved goodbye to drunken behaviour in our town centres, we won’t want it back. Minimum pricing works, has a good evidence base to support it and it won’t make alcohol unaffordable – so let’s stop subsidising ultra-cheap booze through our taxes and loss-leaders and get on with it.
Dr Sarah Wollaston is Conservative MP for Totnes