With excessive drinking across Cheshire and Warrington higher than the national average, borough leaders are looking at a minimum unit price for alcohol. DAVID NORBURY reports
Alcohol harm has a severe effect on communities and public services, with figures showing there were more than 8,000 booze-fuelled incidents recorded by the police in Cheshire West alone in 2009/10.
More than 40% involved anti- social behaviour, councillors heard.
Apart from risky drinking, a range of health problems related to alcohol across Cheshire and Warrington are also said to be higher than the national average, including hospital admissions and deaths in women.
Top doctors in Cheshire and Merseyside have written to local councils welcoming Government proposals to introduce a ban on sales of alcohol at below the rate of duty plus VAT as an important first step.
But they believe a minimum price of 50p per unit should be included in a range of measures to tackle the rising alcohol problem.
The doctors point out that in some outlets alcohol is available at prices as low as 10p per unit, with supermarket brand cider often less than £1 per litre.
With the introduction of the 50p minimum unit price that would not be able to be sold for less than £6.
Councillors also heard a 440ml can of lager, often priced at less than 38p, would rise to 92p if the new measure applied.
Cheshire West and Chester Council’s ruling executive was told the introduction of a by-law or national legislation to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol would make it illegal to sell alcohol for less than the unit price in both on and off licensed premises.
A minimum unit price of 50p would reduce consumption among problem and younger drinkers, it is thought, while consumers would still be able to get a pint in the pub for £1.50 and a bottle of wine in the supermarket for £4.50.
The executive’s debate revealed views on both sides of the argument.
Cllr Stuart Parker (Con, Chester Villages) suggested: “This is another problem where the majority are going to lose out because of the minority.
“The majority of people do drink responsibly and to a lot of people, especially those on low incomes, low-price alcohol is perhaps one of the only benefits they do have.
“I am having a battle with myself on this one as I totally agree we have to stop problematic drinking. But raising it to 50p per unit… I do not know.
“People smoke, the cost goes up again and they find the money somehow.
“The problem is if we price alcohol away from a lot of people then they will get the money somehow. Does it then drive them into crime?”
Supporting Cllr Parker, Cllr Les Ford (Con, Helsby) said: “It is the medical Taliban again, having a good go at some sections of the population who are not behaving in the way we would like them to.
“If we do put something like this in place we do risk banning people from what they want to do and that is not usually a good idea.”
Cllr Brenda Dowding (Con, Parkgate) said: “People are being admitted younger and younger into hospital with life-threatening problems caused by alcohol.
“People as young as in their 20s are dying so it is not something we can ignore.
“The treatment services are struggling to cope.
“The medical profession is very keen to see this, they have done considerable research into unit pricing and they are all saying that in their opinion this is a tool that should be used.”
She added: “We need to dispel the myth that this is going to have a significant impact on the general population. It isn’t.
“It is not going to affect the price of your bottle of wine in the supermarket, it is not going to affect the price of your spirits in the supermarket, it is not going to affect the price of your pint in the pub.
“What is good is you stop the sale of the very cheap, very, very nasty alcohol which is available out there.”
She believed the sale of strong ciders at £1 a bottle ‘is really worrying because they are consumed in large quantities involving young people so they are set in the habit very early’.
Cllr Dowding accepted ‘if we implement a model bylaw and other authorities don’t that is likely to be an issue’ but argued neighbouring authorities were interested.
Cllr Lynn Riley (Con, Frodsham) felt one of the problems which translated into demands on health and problems of crime and disorder was ‘front loading’, so people arrived in responsible premises ‘having consumed several bottles of cider before they start drinking’.
Cllr Mike Jones expressed concern at ‘retailers selling alcohol as a loss-leading way of selling their brands and getting people in to buy their other products’ as he had seen the consequences.
“I have been out on the streets with the police at night and with the street pastors who do a great job in Chester and Ellesmere Port and you see the state of people as they are going out,” he said.
“They have tanked up on very cheap alcohol, causing all sorts of social problems in our bars and restaurants, driving people away.
“We want to improve the image of our towns and city and I think it is a step in the right direction.
“The benefits significantly outweigh the reservations.”
The executive agreed to ‘acknowledge’ the medical support for minimum unit pricing and to support an approach aiming to introduce a minimum price of 50p per unit across Cheshire and Warrington.
It also endorsed the possibility of a by-law as well as national legislation as part of a wider strategy to tackle alcohol harm.