THE lives of some of the region’s most vulnerable people will be put at risk if plans to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol are delayed, campaigners warned last night.

With high strength booze being sold for “pocket money prices” to children as young as ten, the Government has been urged to follow Scotland’s lead and ensure alcohol is sold for a minimum 50p per unit.

Campaigners warned that delaying such a move for five years would lead to:

  • The loss of at least 75 North-East lives;
  • 11,000 alcohol-related crimes in the region;
  • 4,600 admissions to the region’s hospitals
  • A cost to the North-East of nearly £66million

Last night, Sergeant Mick Urwin, of Durham Police’s Alcohol Reduction Unit and co-chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council licensing sub group, said: “If we continue to allow young people to access cheap alcohol at less than the cost they are paying for their school dinner, it will cause a lot of harm.”

The Northern Echo: Mick Urwin

Sergeant Mick Urwin

He said underage drinkers are gathering in secluded and isolated areas in woods or next to rivers to drink cheap, high-strength alcohol – with three litres of cider costing as little as £3.60 – and are putting themselves at risk.

Sgt Urwin, of Durham Police's Alcohol Harm Reduction Unit, spoke out as the House of Commons’ Health and Home Affairs select committees met this week to investigate introducing a minimum unit price on alcohol.

In November, the Scottish Government announced it would press ahead with plans to charge alcohol at a minimum price of 50p per unit. That means a 500ml can of beer can be sold for no less than £1.50 and a bottle of whisky £14.

The UK Government will reconsider introducing a minimum price for alcohol after the Scottish scheme was backed by the Supreme Court.

Campaigners argue that minimum pricing would reduce the consumption of super-strength ciders, cheap vodka and special brew lagers.

Sgt Urwin said: "Some high strength high alcohol is being sold at pocket money prices. If we continue to allow young people to access cheap alcohol at less than the cost they are paying for their school dinner, then it will continue to be a problem and cause a lot of harm."

According to Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, the North-East will see almost 11,000 alcohol related crimes and 4,600 hospital admissions if the Government delays the introduction of a minimum price unit in England for five years.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: "Like Scotland, we also support pricing alcohol at 50p per unit with regular reviews and tracked against rising incomes.

"Alcohol is now 60 per cent more affordable in the UK than it was in 1980 and price adds greatly to the increased burden we are seeing on health, on our NHS and on our police forces."

Giving evidence to the committees, Sgt Urwin, who has been a police officer for 28 years, said: "We know that cheap alcohol is the drink of choice for heavy drinkers and many children. We know this because members of our force regularly see such products being consumed on the street.”

“The kinds of products that the minimum unit price will affect – the cheap ciders and vodkas – are exactly those products that we confiscate on a regular basis.

"These products are putting the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable populations at risk and it is members of the emergency services that have to deal with the consequences.”

According to Balance, the North East has the highest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the country, with the poorest six-and-a-half times more likely to end up in hospital because of alcohol than the most affluent.

And while consumption amongst children is falling, the region also has the highest drinking rate in England amongst 11 to 15-year-olds, with an estimated 9,000 having been drunk at least once or twice in the past four weeks.

Government figures estimate that alcohol abuse in England and Wales costs £2bn annually, including cost to the health service, alcohol-related crime and losses to the economy.

Introducing a minimum price of 60p per unit would see 3,000 fewer alcohol-related deaths over five years, 88,000 few hospital admissions and 350,000 crimes, according to health data.

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and the regional lead for alcohol, said: “Minimum unit price is not a magic bullet. It will not address all of the problems we have with alcohol. But it is the most effective single measure we can introduce.

"It has saved lives in those parts of Canada where it has been introduced. All of the independent evidence says it will save lives in Scotland and plans are under way for it to be introduced in Wales and Ireland.

“The North-East must not miss out and we urge the Westminster Government to introduce it as soon as possible.”