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Archive for Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cheap booze? British tradition under threat

A man walks by a bar advertising its specials Monday in central London. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, on Monday proposed raising prices on alcohol to combat the health risks of overindulging.

A man walks by a bar advertising its specials Monday in central London. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, on Monday proposed raising prices on alcohol to combat the health risks of overindulging.

March 17, 2009

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— 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 cut-rate 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 discount drinks, happy hour specials and underage drinking — helping to cause public health costs to soar. 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 capita 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, which use low alcohol prices as a lure.

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 ($6.30) for a bottle of wine; a minimum of £14 ($19.70) for a bottle of whiskey, and a base price of £6 ($8.50) for a six-pack of beer.

By comparison, a major London supermarket Monday offered 30 cans of Foster’s beer for £16 ($22.50), which works out to just over £3 ($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.

Public reaction seemed muted, with a few people complaining about the government’s “nanny state” approach to social problems.

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