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Minimum price on alcohol amongst proposals to "tackle irresponsible drinking"

Alcoholic drinks could be subject to a minimum price and promotional deals could be banned under new proposals put forward for consultation by the Government.30 Nov 2012

A minimum price of 45p per unit is one of a range of proposed measures that the Home Office has said will "cut crime, save lives and reduce alcohol consumption".

However the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned that the proposals would "penalise the vast majority" of drinkers and "do nothing to reduce irresponsible drinking".

The consultation also proposes that a health objective be included as an alcohol licensing objective, meaning that licensing authorities would be able to consider the cumulative impact on health when managing problems relating to the number of licensed premises in their area, and a review of the mandatory licensing conditions to ensure that they sufficiently target specific problems, such as irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs.

Policing Minister Damian Green said that the proposals were intended to tackle problems associated with cheap drink and irresponsible selling practices.

"These measures are not about stopping responsible drinking but designed to tackle the minority who cause alcohol-related crime and disorder in our local communities," he said. "The evidence is clear - the availability of cheap alcohol contributes to harmful levels of drinking. It can't be right that it is possible to purchase a can of beer for as little as 20p."

Included in the consultation are several proposals intended to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses that make "ancillary sales" of a small amount of alcohol as part of their wider business. The Government is seeking views on potentially removing the need for these businesses to nominate a personal licence holder or even removing the need for a premises licence altogether. It also intends to clarify the definition of an "ancillary" sale to ensure that irresponsible businesses are unable to take advantage of any new regulatory regime.

Andrew Opie of the BRC warned that the proposals set a "dangerous precedent" for Government interference in markets in the future.

"Most people already drink less than recommended limits – there is no reason why they should be denied access to discounts," he said. "The Government should recognise the role of personal responsibility. It should not allow interfering in the market to regulate prices and promotions to become the default approach for public health policy."

The consultation follows the introduction of changes to the Licensing Act giving local communities more of a say on applications for new licensed premises in their area, as well as restrictions on early morning sales and a 'late night levy' on businesses to help contribute towards the costs of policing. Licensing law expert Audrey Ferrie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, also pointed out that on first glance many of the proposals matched ones recently introduced in Scotland.

"Scotland already has a health objective and the local health boards are consulted - and some are already objecting to applications for new licences," she said. "The difficulty for licensing authorities is linking the alcohol-related harms to specific applications or premises."

"Scotland also has a ban on multi-buys and, of course, a proposal for minimum unit pricing. That proposal is already under challenge in the Court of Session and at the European Commission by trade bodies and some wine-producing EC members, and I see no reason why the UK Government's proposal will be treated any differently."

The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act, which is set to take effect from April 2013, will introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol sold in Scotland. The Act has been challenged in the Court of Session by trade bodies including the Scotch Whisky Association and the European Spirits Organisation as having the potential to artificially distort trade in the alcoholic drinks market, contrary to EU law. A judgement in the case is expected before the end of the year.

Separately, the European Commission has said that Scotland's plans are a "disproportionate" response to the country's drinking problems, according to the BBC. The Scottish Government has until 27 December to respond to its comments.

"The Commission ... acknowledges that the measure proposed is within member states' competence and, from a public health point of view, within the scope of the goals and objectives of the EU strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol-related harm," general secretary Catherine Day said. "However, the measure at issue raises doubts as to its compatibility with the principle of proportionality."

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