TWENTY top North-East liver specialists have united to sign an open letter criticising the Government's u-turn over minimum alcohol pricing.

The consultants said the Government had "let down" the region and "missed a real opportunity" to reduce the devastating impact which cheap alcohol has on individuals, families and whole communities.

"We are extremely disappointed that Government has reneged on its committment to tackle the problems caused by cheap alcohol by introducing a minimum unit price," they wrote.

They said the North-East was particularly at risk as it has: 

  • The highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions,
  • The highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions for under-18s
  • The highest rate of under 18s in alcohol treatment

The liver specialists from Tyneside down to Teesside said they are treating more young people with alcohol-related liver disease than ever before - a figure which is rising "at an alarming rate".

The number of North-East hospital admissions for under 30's with alcohol-related liver disease soared by 400 per cent between 2003 and 2012.

"This is a disease that, even as recently as a decade ago, was something we would rarely see in anyone under 50," the letter added.

The specialists say this is due to more people drinking at a much earlier age and in much greater quantities, something "driven by price and availability".

"We needed Government to stand firm on its promise. We needed Government to stand up to the alcohol industry. We also needed measures which would allow us to, in the words of the Prime Minister, 'deal with cheap alcohol'.

The consultants' letter echoes criticism in recent weeks from the three North-East police commissioners, the North-East's alcohol control agency and its clinical commissioning groups.

The doctors said the Prime Minister's original proposal to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol of 40p - which was shelved last month in favour of a ban on alcohol being sold below cost price - was a measure "which, without doubt, would have saved lives and reduced hospital admissions."

Pointing to recent research by Sheffield University which shows that a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol would have 50 times the impact of a ban on the sale of alcohol below the price of duty, plus VAT - the Government's chosen measure - the specialists said: "Minimum price is needed, its wanted and it works."

In parts of Canada where a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol was introduced this resulted in a 32 per cent fall in alcohol-related deaths.

"In contrast, the suggested alternative, to ban selling alcohol below cost price, will have very little impact and will certainly not address the problem," the doctors add.

Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: "This is a great letter. It shows there is a united front. We wholeheartedly support what they are saying."

A Government spokesman said: "We do not yet have enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms associated with problem drinking - this is a crucial point - without penalising people who drink responsibly."

A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: "It is important to remember that overall alcohol consumption has dropped by 16 per cent since 2004, with the largest decline amongst young people. Rather than penalising the responsible majority, the Government should focus on initiatives that target the small minority that misuse alcohol."