Doctors hail minimum alcohol price
A minimum price of at least 50p should be set for small amounts of alcohol in Northern Ireland, doctors said.
Some drink are sold for less than the cost of water but the health service bill may be as high as £160 million a year, research showed.
Excessive drinking is a significant cause of premature death and associated with violence and family breakdown, the British Medical Association (BMA) said.
Chairman Dr Paul Darragh said: "BMA believes that an effective measure to reduce alcohol misuse is to implement a realistic minimum price for alcohol. This is to ensure that alcohol cannot be sold below cost and, in effect, be cheaper than water to purchase. We believe that such a move will save lives through a reduction in alcohol consumption."
The organisation believes a minimum price per unit of alcohol, equivalent to half a pint of beer, should be set at no less than 50p.
Excessive alcohol consumption cost the NHS up to £160 million a year with a further social services bill of £82 million, according to 2010 figures published by Stormont's Health Department.
Dr Darragh added: "Alcohol misuse destroys lives. It is associated with crime, violence and anti-social behaviour, and can impact significantly on family and community life. It causes family breakdowns, is a major factor in domestic violence and ruins job prospects."
He cited evidence that alcohol consumption and rates of related problems were responsive to prices. "Fixing minimum drinks prices can achieve health goals that raising alcohol taxes alone cannot as it prevents below-cost selling and deep discounting," he added.
Celebrities to have died from alcohol-related health problems include footballer George Best. Around 266 people a year die from abusing drink in Northern Ireland, according to the BMA.
Professor Ian Gilmore, a specialist in liver disease, said: "Given the failure of the Westminster Government to follow through on its earlier commitment to a minimum unit price for alcohol, there is a real opportunity for Government in Northern Ireland to show the way in adopting this evidence-based public health policy. The harm from alcohol in this country is there for all to see, and in minimum unit pricing we have a central plank of policy that we know, from recent experience in Canada, will really save lives."