Trouble brewing: UK clamps down on bargain boozing

In an effort to deter growing levels of binge-drinking in the UK, the government is proposing the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol. But its implementation has come under fire from the drinks industry, which claims it violates EU law.

­The debate over the Tory government’s announcement to slap a minimum price on alcohol of 40 pence (60 cents) per unit is in full swing in the UK. They also plan to ban supermarkets from offering multi-buy offers, which they say promote the binge-drinking culture.

The new measures are aimed at tackling the country’s rampant boozing, which costs the UK health service 2.7 billion pounds (US$4.3 billion) a year according to the latest figures.

The alcohol industry has challenged the government initiative, saying it goes against EU legislation which stipulates that there should be no discrimination between imported goods and domestic goods.

The UK government has said that it will not introduce the measures until it is totally sure of their legality.

“It’s easy to say it’s probably illegal but it’s never been done and there’s no test case so far. Scotland has had fairly positive conversations with Europe about it,” said a spokesperson from 10 Downing Street.

The EU commission has said that it would favor raising taxes on alcohol in Britain as a measure for curtailing consumption as it “puts all products on an equal footing from a market perspective.”

“Minimum prices can increase the profit margin of products with the lowest production cost,” said a spokesperson from the EU commission.

Key members of parliament have also voiced doubts over whether merely lifting the price of alcoholic goods will affect binge-drinking culture.

Earlier this year, Health Minister Anne Milton said that excessive pricing alone would not deter binge-drinkers and that a change in cultural mindset is needed to bring the problem under control.

Gavin Partington, a spokesperson from then UK Wine and Spirits Trade Association, said that the policy seemed “very unfair and a policy that is not actually going to be successful in tackling the problem drinkers.”

“What in fact a minimum unit price would do, is raise the price for millions of ordinary consumers, and if there is a section of society likely to be hardest hit, it’s the poor, those on lowest incomes,” he told RT’s London-based correspondent, Ivor Bennett.

Whatever the consequences are for the heavy drinking culture in the UK, it seems undeniable that the drinking industry stands to make a profit from the new measures.

British think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that the implementation of a floor price for store-bought alcohol could bring an 850-million-pound ($1.35 billion) annual windfall for the industry.

Moreover, the organization suggested that it would be more advisable to implement the minimum price through the duty system thus sending revenues to the national treasury as oppose to the alcohol industry.

In Britain it is estimated by the National Health Service that 11,500 people die every year of liver disease, a 25 per cent increase over the last decade. Most of these deaths are thought to be linked to excessive alcohol consumption.

“Binge-drinking isn't some fringe issue, it accounts for half of all alcohol consumed in this country. The crime and violence it causes drains resources in our hospitals, generates mayhem on our streets and spreads fear in our communities,” said British PM David Cameron upon announcing the new minimum price initiative on March 23.