LONDON – Two-for-one specials. Alcopops to make booze tasty to teens. Supermarket prices that reward buying in bulk. And pubs on every street corner, making it easy to start your day with a liquid lunch.
No wonder that Britain’s notorious binge drinking is so out of control that the government’s top medical adviser came out Monday in favor of stiff new price policies to cut off the massive flow of cheap booze.
“Cheap alcohol is killing us as never before,” Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson said as he delivered his annual Public Health report. “The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.”
Donaldson described a culture where anything goes — with cheap drinks, two-for-one specials and underage drinking — helping to cause public health costs to soar out of control. Anyone who goes out late at night in London or other major cities would know what he was talking about — it has become common for teenagers and young adults to drink until they drop.
“Let’s try and imagine a country where nobody is physically or sexually assaulted because of alcohol,” he said. “Let’s try and imagine a country where nobody dies in an accident caused by alcohol, where no child has to cower in the corner while its mother is beaten by a drunken partner, where the streets are welcoming for all on a Saturday night and where the streets are free of urine and vomit on a Sunday morning.”
Donaldson said per capital alcohol consumption has fallen since 1970 in many European countries, but has increased by 40 percent in Britain, where beer, wine and spirits have remained relatively cheap, particularly when bought in bulk in supermarkets.
Bringing in a minimum price regime based on a charge of at least 50 pence (70 cents) per alcohol unit would have a substantial, immediate impact, he said.
“Every year there would be 3,393 fewer deaths, 97,900 fewer hospital admissions, 45,800 fewer crimes, and 296,900 fewer sick days,” he said.
His report said the new pricing strategy would set a minimum price of 4.50 pounds ($6.30) for a bottle of wine; a minimum of 14 pounds ($19.70) for a bottle of whiskey, and a base price of 6 pounds ($8.50) for a six-pack of beer.
By comparison, a major London supermarket Monday offered 30 cans of Foster’s beer for 16 pounds ($22.50), which works out to just over 3 pounds ($4.20) for six cans of beer, roughly half the minimum price the health adviser seeks.
Donaldson’s recommendations are nonbinding, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quick to distance himself from the proposal Monday.
“We do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more, or suffer, as a result of the excesses of a small minority,” Brown said.
It is clear that Brown does not want to add to his considerable political burdens by becoming known as the prime minister who raised alcohol prices in the middle of a steep recession.
He was joined by Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who is far ahead in polls in advance of the next general election, which must be held by the summer of 2010. He said the new plan would penalize responsible drinkers and called instead for problem drinkers to be targeted.
Public reaction seemed muted, with some complaining about the government’s “nanny state” approach to social problems.
“It’s disgusting,” said John Michael, a 65-year-old entrepreneur. “Too much tax. Too much government. For the people who have problems, there are laws. Laws are in place so they should abide. People shouldn’t be treated like children.”
Computer systems analyst Suzanne Hamilton said the new policy would make it impossible for her and her husband to find wines in their price range.
“I think it’s penalizing everyone for a minority problem,” she said. “My husband and I have been trying to find wines for under 4 pounds ($5.60). I think the government is always trying to find a problem and slap us on the hand.”
Associated Press writer Laura Nichols contributed to this report.