Ministers have distanced themselves from calls for minimum prices to be imposed on alcohol.
The Government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, is |expected to recommend that shops be required to charge at least 50p per unit for drinks.
The idea, which is backed by health professionals but opposed by drink manufacturers, could double the cost of some beverages sold as “loss leaders” by |supermarkets.
But the Department of Health indicated there was little prospect of the proposal being adopted while households were being squeezed by the recession.
Cabinet minister James Purnell went further, saying the Government would not “punish the responsible majority”, as this policy would do.
If adopted, the plan could see a can of beer costing at least £1 and bottles of wine a minimum £4, depending on strength.
It is set to be outlined in Sir Liam’s annual report on the state of the nation’s health today amid continued concern about the |effects of heavy drinking.
Nuffield, the UK’s leading health charity, backed the proposal, saying increasing prices was the most effective way of cutting consumption.
Labour MP Keith Vaz said the cross-party home affairs select committee, which he chairs, considered the move “vital”, given the close relationship between crime and alcohol.
The Liberal Democrats also said “ridiculously” cheap alcohol was contributing to the problem of binge-drinking and called on the Government to act.
Another Labour MP, Kevin Barron, chairman of the Commons Health Committee, said the idea at least deserved consideration even if it proved unpopular with voters.
Drink-related illnesses cost the NHS £3bn a year, while the total expense to the taxpayer of alcohol abuse is thought to be £25bn a year.
But there was also furious opposition to the idea from those who argue that responsible drinkers would be punished for the misbehaviour of a few.
David Poley, the chief executive of the Portman Group, set up by drinks manufacturers to promote sensible drinking, said: “This would hit the pockets of hard-working families who are already struggling to make ends meet, and it would not deter those people who drink to get drunk.”
Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which represents wine and spirits producers and wholesalers, said: “It is worrying that in the midst of a recession when sales and consumption of |alcohol are falling that the Government should be talking about raising prices for all consumers at a time when many are already struggling to make ends meet.”
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley also warned against penalising the majority of responsible drinkers.
“There is clearly a need for action,” he said. “But it is very important to recognise that to deal with this problem we need to deal with people’s attitudes and not just the supply and price of alcohol.”
But Mr Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said yesterday the Government would not do such a thing.
“We want to focus on the irresponsible minority rather than I think punishing everyone equally,” he told BBC1’s The Politics Show.
“Clearly we will look at Liam Donaldson’s proposals.”
“But we are very clear we don’t want to punish the majority for the sins of the minority. I think certainly at a time of economic difficulty that looks like it would be the effect.”