50p alcohol unit price 'would save 63 lives in Northern Ireland'
More needs to be done to tackle the problems caused by cheap alcohol in Northern Ireland, a charity has warned.
Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke said raising the minimum price paid for booze would save lives, lower hospital admissions and cut the costs of crime by £20m a year.
It claimed recent opinion polling showed nearly two-thirds of people here support action.
Neil Johnston of NICHS said: "Alcohol sold for less than 50p a unit makes up the majority of alcohol purchased by high-risk drinkers.
"Work by Sheffield University shows that pushing up the price of very cheap alcohol will reduce consumption of it by high risk drinkers and bring considerable benefits. Opinion polling by Millward Brown shows 65% of people in Northern Ireland support the idea that the Assembly take measures to control the sale of very cheap alcohol.
"Introducing a minimum unit price of 50p is estimated to save 63 lives a year and result in almost 2,500 fewer hospital admissions."
Mr Johnston rejected criticisms that the policy would penalise "ordinary" drinkers.
He explained that minimum pricing could be set at around 50p a unit and would cost the average moderate drinker an extra £4.70 a year.
He added: "Minimum pricing and bans on alcohol promotions only have a small impact on moderate drinkers.
"The most substantial effects are experienced by high risk drinkers. High-risk drinkers are people who consume on average 86.5 units of alcohol a week, which is over 40 pints of lager.
"This group of people represents less than 6% of the population, however, amazingly, they are responsible for 39% of consumption and 29% of all spending on alcohol."
Chris McAteer, a communications and fundraising assistant at SOS NI, a charity which supports distressed and vulnerable people across Northern Ireland, said volunteers often deal with the problems caused by alcohol.
"We are seeing this problem becoming more common, partly because young people are bussing into events from all over the north," he said.
"We find a lot of them are quite young and pre-loading before they go out.
"They are drinking cheap alcohol bought in supermarkets."
NICHS is hosting an event to focus attention on minimum unit pricing in Belfast on Monday.
Speakers include Colin Angus, an academic at Sheffield University;Professor Frank Murray, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, which represents pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels in Northern Ireland.