Nearly a third of population are binge drinkers, warns teetotal MLA Wells
Almost a third of the population in Northern Ireland are binge drinkers, Health Minister Jim Wells has revealed.
Alcohol abuse leads to 130 deaths here every year, he told the Assembly, and costs the health service in the region £240m every year.
Mr Wells said he wanted to start a public debate on the introduction of minimum unit pricing aimed at reducing the availability of alcohol - but warned MLAs they will come under enormous pressure from drink companies.
The minister said he believed the Republic's Health Minister Leo Varadkar - and their counterparts in England and Wales- "are all singing off the same hymn sheet" as Mr Varadkar can "see clearly the logic of us working together".
"If we did not, and we were to introduce, say, a minimum price of 50p a unit in Northern Ireland, and the Irish Republic refused to do that or was a long way behind us, it is obvious what would happen," he said. "There would be the mass importation of cheaper alcohol from the Republic into Northern Ireland."
Alcohol is 60% cheaper than it was 30 years ago and hospitals treat 3,100 individuals as a result of alcohol abuse, he said.
"At midnight on a Saturday or Sunday, the vast majority of those who report to A&E are under the influence of alcohol or are there because of alcohol," he said. The minister urged all MLAs to give their views on minimum unit pricing particularly if they have difficulties with it.
Asked by DUP colleague Pam Cameron about the impact of alcohol on hospital services, Mr Wells said: "We have found that 31% of our population are binge drinkers: 35% of males and 27% of females.
"This is a big problem, particularly when you remember that 27% of the population, including me, never touch it. Therefore, that indicates that the prevalence amongst the rest of the community is extremely high.
"We will all be put under enormous pressure on this issue by the large drink companies. Be very aware that companies with a bigger budget than the Northern Ireland Executive will lobby you - be ready for that."
He said there was room for a public debate after distillers referred the Scottish Executive's decision on minimum unit pricing to the European Court of Justice.
In the United Kingdom, binge drinking is defined as drinking more than twice the daily limit, that is, drinking eight units or more for men or six units or more for women.
That is around three pints of beer for men or two large glasses of wine for women. In extreme cases you could die. Overdosing on alcohol can stop you breathing or stop your heart.