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Doc-in-chief targets 'passive drinking' with price hike

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Government chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson has gone ahead and demanded the government jack up the price of alcohol to 50 pence a unit.

Donaldson made the call this morning despite a weekend of ministerial insistences that the government had no intention of doing any such thing to a population already punch drunk from the rapid collapse of the economy.

Donaldson's annual report demanded that the UK recognise the effect of "passive drinking on society" and called for a shift in social attitudes "so that being drunk is no longer an aim of drinking nor socially acceptable". Sadly, there's no indication of what Donaldson thinks the aims of drinking should be.

The report also set some other priorities, including calling on trainee surgeons to practice on simulators, a crackdown on overprescribing of antibiotics and a more coherent policy on prostate cancer.

But no one is going to give a hoot about those - except possibly the topic of prostate probing - as long as they can fulminate about the possibility of the government racking up the price of grog in the middle of a recession.

Donaldson's report said alcohol consumption has fallen in many European countries over the last 40 years, while England's consumption has increased by 40 per cent, with the average UK adult now glugging the equivalent of 120 bottles of wine a year.

Donaldson wants to put the booze back in the bottle, forging a "national consensus, prompted by government, that as a country we should substantially reduce alcohol consumption". As part of this he demands that "passive drinking to be acknowledged as a key issue", with licensing laws reflecting the full impact of heavy drinking, making public health considerations central to licensing.

The headline measure, is "a minimum pricing of 50p per unit to be introduced to reduce the consumption of alcohol and its associated harms".

This would up the minimum price of a bottle of vino to £4.50 and price of a can of lager to £1. Presumably this would be done by ramping up the tax element of booze pricing - anything else would look like price fixing by the drinks industry.

This would be tough one for Fleet Street and the rest of the country to swallow at the best of times. In the middle of a recession, when boozing at home or in the street is about as much fun as many of us can afford, it's grounds for a revolution - and the government rushed to give every appearance that it was rubbishing the plans.

The Department of Health told the Independent it would not be making any "sweeping changes" to its strategy of "educating" people about the problems of the demon drink.

Number 10 sources told The Times that responsible drinkers should not have to pick up the tab for the irresponsible minority.

The Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, took the same line with the BBC's Politics Show. "Clearly we will look at Liam Donaldson's proposals – he's a very eminent person in his field – but we are very clear we don't want to punish the majority for the sins of the minority," he said. "At a time of economic difficulty that looks like it would be the effect."

The booze industry said pretty much the same, with Portman Group CEO David Poley saying: "This would hit the pockets of hard-working families who are already struggling to make ends meet, and it would not deter binge drinkers or those addicted to alcohol. Rather than punishing everyone we should focus on the irresponsible minority."

"Peer pressure and role modelling are far more influential than the price of alcohol," Poley said. "Sustained education and proper enforcement of the alcohol laws are the most powerful levers of social change."

Quite right. Though whether the government could introduce legislation to steer MPs, journalists and doctors from their famously boozy habits is open to question.

Given the government's record on listening to advice from scientists on drug policy, it's unlikely the proposals will come to much. Not unless the recession gets really bad and Whitehall is forced to look for new ways to fill the revenue hole left by the collapse of the financial sector. ®

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