A&Es set for injury time as fans board World Cup booze wagon


LONDON LETTER:The World Cup exacerbates England’s drink problem, one fuelled by cheap booze, writes MARK HENNESSEY

HOSPITAL ACCIDENT and emergency wards in England are bracing themselves for a flood of drunken patients next month on the days when England takes to the field in South Africa in the World Cup.

Even before the beautiful game’s biggest event begins, the UK is already struggling with alcohol, with one in 10 going to work twice each week suffering from the night before, according to pressure group Drinkaware.

Now, however, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition says it is ready to ban cheap alcohol promotions, which are blamed for causing some of the problems on British high streets in recent years.

As Labour health secretary, Andy Burnham favoured going further earlier this year by introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Yet he received no support.

Then, supermarkets insisted that prices were not the issue but, rather, that the blame lay with a culture that tolerated heavy drinking. The supermarkets were supplying a market, not creating it.

Tesco says that it now favours an end to below-cost selling of alcohol, but that has not stopped it and others in the meantime from offering World Cup special promotions, all helpfully piled near the door.

Cases of 24 cans of popular beer and lager brands, such as Stella Artois, Boddington’s and Carlsberg, are now on sale in supermarkets for £9 each, nearly nine times cheaper than pub prices.

Tesco, for example, is offering two cases of beer or cider for just £16, meaning that a shopper can buy 30 cans of Carlsberg – 23 pints – for just 69p each, while bottles of high-strength beer are available for just 89p each.

The giant supermarket chain denies the charge of hypocrisy, saying that action must come from the government since the supermarkets are prevented from discussing prices together by competition laws.

Urging Tesco to follow words with deeds, Prof Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians said supermarket prices are “one of the main factors feeding the current binge-drinking epidemic”.

Tesco first called for a below-cost ban two years ago but, nevertheless, its words now marks a significant change in tone by the supermarket, which has close links with some in the new administration.

Just last week, it announced that it intends to put health warning labels on the front of drink packaging to help its customers to take a more responsible attitude, a move that irritated some in the drinks industry.

One of Tesco’s directors, Lucy Neville-Rolfe, is close to Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley and helped him to draft some public health policies during his days on the opposition benches.

Besides banning below-cost sales, the new government pledged to “review alcohol taxation and pricing to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries”. The programme for government did not outline the kinds of change favoured in any detail.

Now, it says that it is prepared to discuss setting a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, which the Scottish National Party, in the face of considerable opposition, is trying to introduce north of the border.

Under the SNP’s plan, a minimum price of between 40p and 50p a unit would be set, which would affect off-licence sales, but not pub sales, since the price charged in them is already much higher.

The Scottish arms of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour are all united in opposition to the SNP’s minimum pricing plan, believing that it would affect the poor disproportionately.

“There is a key flaw in it – those with high levels of income will be able to absorb the financial impact minimum alcohol pricing will have, while lower-income groups will be disproportionately affected by the increase,” says Scottish Labour.

However, a survey by Aberdeen University this week argues that minimum pricing would not have such an effect since the better-off buy more from off-licences than the poor, and they also buy more of cheaper alcohol brands, contrary to the public image.

Most of the more innovative actions in the field are coming in Scotland.

This week, the Glasgow Licensing Board denied permission to Asda, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and the Co-operative to increase the amount of floor space they give over to alcohol as they could not prove the plans would promote public health.

The board, which is now likely to face a welter of legal challenges, took its action under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 which requires any bar, off-sales, supermarket or hotel selling alcohol to provide a floor plan of exactly where on the premises it will be sold and apply to the local board if they want to amend it. One Co-operative branch was denied permission to offer an extra half-shelf of alcohol products.

Despite all of the charges that the United Kingdom is drowning in alcohol, the statistics tell a different, more optimistic story, where consumption, though it is at dangerous levels for a healthy life, has remained steady, or fallen among most age categories over recent years.

The problem is not so much that some of the British are drinking more, but, rather, that they are behaving more badly when they do.