Could a minimum booze price help ailing pubs?

Sam WilliamsIt is being hailed as a way to cut binge drinking and improve the nation's health - and a minimum price on alcohol could also help the city's struggling pubs.Sam Williams

It is being hailed as a way to cut binge drinking and improve the nation's health - and a minimum price on alcohol could also help the city's struggling pubs. But, SAM WILLIAMS reports, not everyone is convinced.

On Friday, a committee of MPs is expected to heap more pressure on the government to introduce a minimum price for alcohol in a bid to cut abuse.

And as well as potential benefits to the nation's health, a city landlord says the step could also offer a welcome boost to pubs, which are closing at a rate of nearly one a day nationally.

The House of Commons health select committee is expected to recommend a 50p a unit minimum price for alcohol, which reports say could save 3,000 lives a year.

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The move would mean a bottle of wine could not be sold for less than �4.50 - compared to some currently sold for less than �2.50 by leading supermarkets - while a 500ml can of 4pc alcohol lager would have a minimum price of �1, while crates of 24 can currently be bought for �10 or less.

A typical 70cl bottle of spirits would also have a minimum price of about �14.

And while many remain unconvinced, some pub landlords say this could help improve trade by narrowing the price difference between supermarket booze and that bought in pubs.

In addition to the smoking ban, economic downturn and rising wholesale and energy prices, many publicans say the low supermarket prices have hit trade, leading to hundreds closing nationally every year.

David Turnbull, licensee at the Blue Boar in Sprowston, said he believed supermarkets were selling alcohol at below cost prices in a bid to pull in customers.

He said: 'Its ridiculous how cheap supermarket booze is. You see huge piles of Foster's and Grolsch for sale at 40p a bottle and in a pub it will cost �2.50. The supermarkets are just doing it as a loss leader to attract the customers who will then go and buy other things.

'Something has to be done about it. Pubs are closing hand over fist.'

And he said the expected recommended minimum price of 50p a unit was a step in the right direction.

He added: '50p a unit is a start. When you can buy a bottle of beer for 40p and pay 60p for a bottle of mineral water or when you can buy three bottles of wine for �10 to me it is irresponsible retail.'

And Mr Turnbull said many young drinkers causing mayhem in the city centre at weekends were getting drunk on supermarket-bought booze before going out - while it was left to publicans and nightclub owners to stump up for door staff to cope with drunken revellers.

'Supermarkets don't have to suffer the consequences when they sell cheap alcohol, while we have to pick up the pieces when people get absolutely slaughtered after drinking at home.

'Alcohol is a dangerous drug and price does have a huge effect,' he added.

Nationally the calls for minimum pricing for alcohol have been backed by health chiefs, including professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, who said the country's 'growing addiction to alcohol' was putting 'immense strain' on health services, especially hospitals, costing the NHS over �2.7bn a year.

He added: 'The role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm but also about active prevention, early intervention and working in partnership with services in local communities to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm.'

The calls were backed by Craig McLaren, landlord at the Wig and Pen in the city centre, and president of the Norfolk Licensed Victuallers' Association, who warned it was too easy for young people to get hold of booze.

But he said he was not sure if the move would have any impact on struggling pubs.

'I think pricing alcohol above the price of bottled water has to be a must for any government.

'It may also create a level playing field for pubs, which may help, but the thing that really concerns me is the health of youngsters. Alcohol is too accessible and too accessibly priced.'

But he said it was difficult to judge what impact minimum prices would have on the pub trade, with both budget pubs chain JD Wetherspoon and more expensive brewer and pub company Fullers reporting strong trading recently.

And Chris Higgins, licensee at the Trafford Arms pub on Grove Road to the south of the city, said minimum pricing would not help the situation.

'It's not about how much alcohol costs but what people do with the stuff.

'We have had the smoking ban and the alteration of licensing arrangements, the whole system has been scrutinised

'I have been in this trade for 37 years and I have never seen anything like it. The idea that you can solve society's ills with minimum pricing is nonsense.

I don't think minimum pricing will help one iota. Whenever the government tries to manipulate things it never seems to work. It is just tinkering.

'It comes down to education. We need to be educating people about the damage people who drink excessively are doing to themselves, not just putting money on it.'

And he said drinkers would find other sources of cheap booze, adding: 'People will find other means to get cheaper alcohol, like bringing it here from France.'

Whether or not minimum alcohol pricing would benefit pubs or public health, it is still not certain whether the government would support its introduction.

In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist government has backed a bill which could see it introduced there by the end of this year, although the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative opposition parties are all against the plans.

Prime minister Gordon Brown indicated in the spring last year that he would not support measures to crack down on binge and underage drinking that would adversely affect the 'responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers'.

Shopkeeper accuses supermarkets of 'ridiculous' offers on festive booze

A Norfolk convenience store owner has backed calls for a minimum price on alcohol, accusing supermarkets of 'ridiculous' offers on booze over the festive period.

Nigel Dowdney, owner of the Stalham Shopper in Stalham and Earlham Shopper in the Earlham West Centre, accused major retailers of selling alcoholic drinks at below cost price in a bid to draw shoppers in - known as loss leading.

Mr Dowdney, a member of the Association of Convenience Stores, said minimum pricing would help smaller independent traders compete with supermarkets and help stem problem drinking.

He said: 'Anything that stops the supermarkets and multiples using alcohol as a loss leader has to be a good thing.

'We have seen all over Christmas and the New Year alcohol being sold at ridiculous prices and supermarkets not taking responsibility.

'This is dragging down the reputation of the rest of the trade. We are being blamed for the problems supermarkets are causing.'

He added: 'It would also help us compete on a level playing field for once.'

Minimum price could help independent wine suppliers

A 50p per unit price would have a dramatic impact on wine, with a minimum of �4.50 price tag on a bottle - compared to less than �2.40 currently charged by some supermarkets.

And a city supplier said it could also benefit independent wine retailers.

Rowan Gormley, founder of Norwich-based Naked Wines, said: 'Any new measure which helps to separate the teenage binge drinkers from the grown-ups has our backing.

'It will hopefully encourage UK wine drinkers to think about value for money, and the benefits of buying directly from smaller, independent producers.'

Minimum pricing - fact panel

A proposal for a minimum price for alcohol was made last year by the chief medical officer (CMO), with a recommendation of 50p per unit.

A 50p per unit minimum would mean:

t A 750ml bottle of wine (12pc alcohol by volume) could not be sold for less than �4.50.

t A 700ml bottle of 40pc whisky or other spirits would cost at least �14.

t Six 500ml cans of 4pc lager could not be sold for less than �6.

t A two-litre bottle of cider (5.5pc) could not be sold for less than �5.50.

Why did the CMO recommend this?

Since 1970, alcohol consumption has fallen in many European countries but has increased by 40pc in England.

The average intake per adult is equivalent to 120 bottles of wine a year.

Other effects of too much alcohol consumption include:

t Harm to unborn foetuses (such as foetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related miscarriages).

t drunken violence, vandalism, sexual assault and child abuse.

t The health burden on both the NHS and friends and family who care for people who are damaged by alcohol.

Is there a link between price and alcohol consumption?

The CMO says that research shows a clear relationship between price and alcohol consumption. The government-commissioned Independent Review of the Effects of Alcohol Pricing and Promotion by a team at Sheffield University found that increases in prices generally have a greater effect on heavy drinkers' consumption than on moderate drinkers' consumption. This is thought to be because people who drink more tend to choose cheaper drinks.