BMA welcomes alcohol price plans
Introducing a minimum price for alcohol in Northern Ireland will help shift harmful drinking patterns in the region, doctors' leaders have said.
The British Medical Association has welcomed proposals outlined by Stormont Health Minister Jim Wells to crack down on binge drinking.
Paul Darragh, from the BMA's Board of Science, said: "As doctors, we see first-hand the effects of heavy and binge drinking on our patients and their families.
"There needs to be a fundamental shift in consumption patterns to tackle alcohol-related disease and an ever-increasing body of evidence demonstrates that minimum unit pricing will make a significant contribution toward achieving that goal "
Some retailers have criticised Mr Wells's plan, claiming it will unfairly impact responsible drinkers.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Irish Retail Consortium, said: "Most major retailers believe minimum pricing of alcohol is unfair to responsible consumers and the wrong approach to tackling excessive consumption. It will simply penalise the vast majority of consumers who already drink less than the Government's recommended limits.
"Irresponsible drinking has cultural causes and we are targeting those through clear labelling, education and support for targeted awareness campaigns which are helping consumers drink responsibly."
The proposal to set a price under which alcohol cannot be sold is due to go out for public consultation.
The minister, who said alcohol problems were costing the Northern Ireland economy £900 million a year, insists the measures will have little impact on modest drinkers and are aimed at those who drink to excess.
Similar proposals for Scotland are being assessed by the European courts.
Mr Wells's plan has the support of Stormont Social Development Minister and Democratic Unionist colleague Mervyn Storey.
Their views have been guided by academic research by the University of Sheffield that was commissioned by their respective departments.
The report said a minimum price would reduce consumption and alcohol-related harm by ensuring that alcohol cannot be bought at prices that do not reflect its strength.
It said the reduction of alcohol consumption would lead to a decrease in alcohol-related deaths, hospital admissions, crime and absenteeism.
Outlining his proposals, Mr Wells said: "The level of harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland is staggering. The total cost to the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to be as high as £900 million per year, with the burden to healthcare alone costing up to £240 million per year.
"However, this financial burden can never fully describe the incalculable impact that alcohol misuse has on individuals, on families, and on our communities in Northern Ireland. Alcohol misuse remains a significant public health issue for Northern Ireland. We owe it to those individuals who drink heavily, and their families, to do something about this."
Mr Wells added: "The evidence in the University of Sheffield's report is compelling and, subject to Executive agreement, I intend to put the issue out to public consultation and will be keen to see what feedback we get on this important issue."
Mr Storey's department is responsible for liquor licensing.
"I share the Health Minister's concerns in relation to alcohol misuse being a major public health issue and, having read the Sheffield report, I am in full agreement that minimum unit pricing should be adopted as the preferred policy option for Northern Ireland," he said.
"While minimum unit pricing cannot be expected to solve all of our society's problems with alcohol, the evidence now clearly demonstrates that it has the potential to have a significant, positive impact and ultimately save lives."