REGIONAL campaigners who have called for a minimum pricing policy to curb sales of the cheapest types of alcohol have criticised the Chancellor’s  freeze on price increases for booze.

Colin Shevills, director of Balance, the North-East alcohol agency,  said: “It is extremely disappointing that the Chancellor, George Osborne, has listened to the global alcohol industry and decided to scrap the alcohol duty escalator. He has gone even further than they demanded by freezing duty on whisky and cider and reducing it on beer.”

Mr Shevills said the duty on white cider is currently just 6p a unit of alcohol yet it is often found in the hands of children.

“Alcohol is is already 61 per cent more affordable than it was in 1980, as a result of which consumption has doubled since the middle of the last century.

Mr Shevills said the North-East region already suffers at the hands of alcohol.

“As well as costing the North-East around £1.1bn each year, we have the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions, the highest rate of alcohol-specific hospital admissions for under 18s and the highest rate of under 18s in alcohol treatment services. This is driven by alcohol which is too cheap, too available and too widely promoted.

“Last year the Government was persuaded by the alcohol industry to abandon plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, a measure which is proven to save lives, cut crime and save money by increasing the price of the most damaging products. This latest decision will make a bad situation worse and will do nothing to improve the lives of nurses, police officers, ambulance staff – and some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

In February, the Alcohol Health Alliance warned that axing the escalator would be "madness".

In a letter to the Chancellor it said that if ministers scrapped the duty rise it would put "even more pressure on public services and frontline workers".

The alliance - which is made up of leading health bodies including the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Association, charity Alcohol Concern and the Institute of Alcohol Studies - called on Mr Osborne to maintain the alcohol duty escalator - which normally goes up by inflation plus 2% each year.

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: "Today's announcement to scrap the alcohol duty escalator is staggering. With alcohol costing the country £21 billion a year, and alcohol-related hospital admissions more than doubling over the last ten years, it comes as a shock to learn that the Chancellor believes that it is right to further incentivise drinking by making alcohol cheaper.

"Alcohol is 61% more affordable today than it was in 1980 and current duty rates for strong white cider amount to just 6p per unit. Yet the Chancellor appears to think that this isn't cheap enough.

"This decision, similar to the u-turn on minimum pricing, has been taken following an intense and aggressive lobbying campaign from the drinks industry. It is yet more evidence to suggest the Government has turned its back on public health and frontline workers such as nurses and police offers, who have to mop up the mess that alcohol creates day in day out.

"It is yet another sad day to see how the profits of multinational alcohol producers have been prioritised over public health and safety."

Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, added: "Once again this Government has cast aside the health of the nation to protect the interests of big alcohol.

"The notion that this freeze is about protecting responsible drinkers is irresponsible spin - alcohol misuse costs us all £21 billion a year, our hospitals weigh under the burden of it and our police forces are stretched to the limit because of it. Instead of taking serious, evidence-based action the Chancellor has given the alcohol industry the green light to make bigger profits at all of our expense.

"This freeze makes a mockery of the Government's ban on below cost sales, rendering it even less effective than it would have been.

"Until we treat alcohol misuse as the huge public health issue it is, like smoking, we will all continue to pay billions to deal with it."