COUNTY residents have been told by supporters of a minimum price for alcohol that supermarkets would be hit hardest and local pubs would not be affected.
A meeting about the issue in Morpeth Town Hall was set up by a Northumberland County Council committee and the panellists told those in attendance about the potential health and economic benefits of introducing the measure.
The political argument also raised its head, with the Labour group defending its stance on promoting the county as a place to buy less expensive alcohol than Scotland if its minimum setting of 50p per unit comes in as planned next April.
Prof Sue Milner, director of public health and protection, said that the cost of alcohol harm in Northumberland was estimated to be £110million, and increasing the price of cheap booze items was one method of reducing that amount.
“Alcohol does have positive social and economic impacts when used safely, but the relationship with it seems to have taken an unhealthy turn for the worse in the last 20 years,” she added.
Colin Shevills, director of North East campaign group Balance, said alcohol was about 45 per cent more affordable than it was in 1980, and according to detailed evidence, there is a correlation between consumption levels and price.
He said: “Minimum unit pricing would affect the cheapest, strongest drinks most often found in supermarkets such as white cider and own label vodkas and it would also prevent deep discounting.
“It would have little or no affect on prices in an average community pub and this would help them by closing the price difference between pubs and the cheapest supermarket deals.”
Richard Slade of the British Institute of Innkeeping added: “The cynical way that supermarkets promote cheap alcohol is damaging society when you see so many pubs closing across the country.”
A member of the public said the measure was also needed to target clubs and some bars which offer discount promotions to attract people through their doors. Tony Brookes of Head of Steam Ltd said this should stop if supermarkets are unable to do cheap booze deals.
Although no-one on the panel spoke against introducing a minimum unit price, the opposing argument was presented within a document that was handed out at the meeting.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association argues that there is no evidence of this scheme working, it would have a disproportionate impact on low income households and it would be complex and costly to implement. It also claims that it is likely to be illegal and the Scottish Government’s legislation is subject to legal challenge.
Coun Barrie Crowther, who represents the Cramlington Eastfield ward, said that although he had no objection to minimum unit pricing, alcohol could not be thought about in isolation as the harmful effects of other, potentially more dangerous substances needed to be considered as well.
Alnwick ward member Gordon Castle said some members of the public will hope that this measure will be only one to come forward amid concerns that health bodies could put forward a raft of alcohol-related and licensing proposals at the same time.
The issue hit the headlines at a regional and national level earlier this summer when the Northumberland Labour group said the county had an opportunity to boost its economy by promoting itself as a place for Scots to buy cheaper alcohol.
At the meeting, its leader Grant Davey insisted that the minimum price issue was separate from its proposal and his councillors would be following the party’s position on the issue after its conference in the autumn.
“For us it was an economic issue about raising trade and getting more money in the tourism pot as more people from Scotland would be visiting our towns and areas of beauty, similar to people coming from Scandinavia to the North East and going from Dover to France,” he said.
But his comments were criticised by Lib Dem councillor Anita Romer, the authority’s executive member for health and public protection.
She said: “His continued lack of support for what Scotland’s Government is doing to tackle the country’s problem with alcohol is seriously irresponsible.”
“Alcohol abuse is going to be one of the council’s highest priorities when it takes on the responsibility for public health in Northumberland next year, and minimum pricing of alcohol is one of a number of measures we can implement in order to reduce the harm to individuals and the county as a whole.”
The authority will decided its response to the Government’s consultation at a full council meeting later this year.