Belfast Telegraph

Poots urged: don't give up on alcohol pricing plans

A top doctor says Health Minister Edwin Poots must "not be swayed" by moves in Westminster to drop plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing.

The British Medical Association's Northern Ireland (BMANI) chairman Dr Paul Darragh (right) said the legislation needs to be implemented in the province to address a problem costing the NHS tens of millions of pounds.

The policy, previously championed by Prime Minister David Cameron, is aimed at helping cut levels of ill-health and alcohol-related crime. But it has now been shelved in England and Wales.

A joint consultation by the Health and Social Development departments was carried out in 2011 but remains under review.

Last night it was confirmed that given the "potential impact on cross-border trade", North-South research is being carried out.

Meanwhile, UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the policy in England and Wales would also remain "under review".

Senior ministers argued that minimum pricing would hit the poorest hardest.

But Dr Darragh said more needs to be done to stop misuse.

"The facts are simple – voluntary measures implemented by the drinks industry are not effective and do not reduce the damage of alcohol misuse," he said.

"BMANI 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."

He added: "BMANI is pleased minister Poots has stated that he intends to bring forward minimum pricing for alcohol, and hopes that he will not be swayed by developments to shelve a minimum pricing policy in England".

The policy was first considered by the Executive in 2011 when a consultation was launched. By March 2012 new Health Minister Mr Poots said legislation should be in place by 2013.

But a department spokeswoman said: "Given the potential impact on cross-border trade, this research is being taken forward on a North-South basis. We anticipate this research will be completed early in 2014."

In May the Scottish Parliament set a 50p unit minimum price.

One economics consultancy in Northern Ireland had argued that there is "no credible evidence" demonstrating potential benefits from minimum pricing.

In March Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride said there was strong evidence for the measure after Northern Ireland's "drug of choice" killed almost 300 people in 2012.

"Alcohol is now 60% more affordable than it was 30 years ago," he said. "Given the relationship between pricing and consumption, I believe the evidence supports the introduction of minimum unit pricing."

STORY SO FAR

David Cameron had championed the idea of setting a minimum unit price to curb cheap booze deals but senior ministers warned it would hit the poorest people hardest. The BMANI estimates, in monetary terms, excessive alcohol consumption costs to the health service in Northern Ireland could be as high as around £160m each year with a further cost of £82m to social services. In 2010, 284 people in Northern Ireland died directly from alcohol misuse and there were 7,767 admissions to acute hospitals in 2011-12 with an alcohol-related diagnosis.

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