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Ministers accused over unit pricing

Ministers met the drinks industry dozens of times before ditching plans for minimum alcohol pricing, an investigation has found.

It has prompted health experts to accuse the Government of "dancing to the tune of the drinks industry" and putting big business ahead of the nation's well-being.

Figures obtained by the British Medical Journal found the Department of Health held regular meetings with representatives from the drinks industry, including on two occasions after a public consultation on minimum pricing had ended.

A report by Sheffield University which found evidence that forcing the price of alcohol up would reduce crime and prevent deaths was also never released to the public.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, a group of 22 health professionals including Sir Ian Gilmore, special adviser on alcohol at the Royal College of Physicians, accused the Government of "deplorable practices".

They said: "Today, the public learns of the deplorable practices that were instrumental in the Government's decision to reverse its commitment to save thousands of lives by implementing a minimum unit price for alcohol.

"An investigation conducted by the British Medical Journal shows that ministers met drinks industry representatives to discuss alternative measures to minimum pricing at a time when the principle of this policy was not up for public debate.

"We call on the Government to stop dancing to the tune of the drinks industry and prioritise public health."

The Government shelved its plans to set a minimum per-unit price for alcohol last summer, even though it had been championed by Prime Minister David Cameron.

It sparked claims that he had been influenced by his party's election strategist, Australian lobbyist Lynton Crosby, whose firm is reported to have represented drinks giants.

A Department of Health spokesman told the newspaper: "Minimum unit pricing is still under consideration.

"As you would expect from a government department seeking to effect public health change through a voluntary deal with industry, a wide group of officials have many different meetings with a vast range of stakeholders, and we utterly reject the allegation of anything untoward in the small proportion of those that took place with the alcohol industry."

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "Public health policy is in utter disarray. After the tobacco industry last year, these revelations raise yet more concerns about the influence of big business on this Government's policies."

Public health minister Jane Ellison said government had to "weigh lots of things in the balance".

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I know that many public health experts feel very strongly about this policy but we also had to weigh up the impact it would have on low income households, the impact it would have on people drinking responsibly.

"Wider government has to take these things into consideration. On the health issue this idea of the 130 meetings, many of the public health experts were in those meetings."

She added: "We are not proceeding at the moment, that was the conclusion of the consultation, that was what the Government said."

Mr Cameron's official spokesman told a Westminster media briefing: "I think people would expect all Government departments, when they are considering policy areas, to meet with a wide range of stakeholders. That is what the Department of Health has been doing with stakeholders across the board."


From Belfast Telegraph