TIMES are tight, and yet every year the public purse spends a staggering £1bn tidying up after those who have drunk too much alcohol.

Through wantonly consuming too much, they over-extend our police force and our health service. They commit 46,000 crimes and they account for 100,000 hospital admissions.

These are bald statistics. It’s far more difficult to count up the pain suffered by assaulted police officers and nurses, the unpleasant inconvenience endured by taxi drivers whose vehicles have been vomited in, or the nuisance the rest of us put up with due to a long list of alcohol-induced anti-social incidents.

Governments in this country have been taxing alcohol since 1690. Such taxes raise good money and also help prevent the over-consumption that causes these expensive social ills.

We have seen recently that making alcohol expensive stops its consumption: the high price of beer is one of the factors decimating the pub trade.

Yet, the sheer power of a handful of supermarkets enables them to discount alcohol so that it costs as little as 22p a unit (in comparison, the average cost of a pint of beer in a Darlington pub is about £2.20).

This cheapness encourages people to drink. And to gain the cheapest drink, you have to bulk buy from your supermarket, and this encourages people to drink excessively.

So, as the supermarkets have found a way of getting around the tax, the tax has to be re-thought. One of the ideas being put forward today by Balance, a North-East group that campaigns on alcohol issues, is for a minimum price of 50p a unit to be charged.

This would raise the cost of supermarket bargains while having minimal effect on the struggling pub trade.

There are plenty of questions about whether you can buck the market in this way. But the current taxation regime is failing. New ideas are needed – because we can no longer afford the social cost of alcohol.