26/10/2011 10:14 BST | Updated 26/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Government's Alcohol Strategy Could Mean Tax Increase On Strong Drinks

The Government's updated alcohol strategy could include further tax measures to discourage the consumption of high-strength drinks, public health minister Anne Milton has indicated.

Ms Milton said the 25p-a-can tax premium on super-strength beers introduced in this year's budget has already had an impact in encouraging the industry to drop alcohol levels.

She told the House of Commons Science Committee that the Department of Health was in "ongoing discussions" with the Treasury on the issue of how price changes can encourage safer drinking.

The new alcohol strategy, expected later this year or early in 2012, "will say more about what we are going to do on price", she said.

But Ms Milton played down any prospect of England following Scotland in imposing a minimum unit price for alcohol, warning that her department's legal advice was that it was "probably illegal" under European free trade laws.

In his March 2011 Budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 25% hike in duty on beers over 7.5% alcohol by volume, adding about 25p to the price of a can of super-strength lager. Meanwhile, less potent brews with between 1.2% and 2.8% alcohol enjoyed a 50% reduction in tax, saving drinkers around 18p a pint. The changes came into effect at the start of this month, but Ms Milton told the committee that they were already having an impact.

Ms Milton said there was a debate about the degree to which price changes are able to alter drinking habits, particularly among problem drinkers. One-third of the population drinks 80% of the alcohol, she pointed out.

But she said there were indications that the "truly dreadful" scenes of drunken behaviour in town centres have declined over the past two or three years as alcohol has become more expensive.

Although she said she had "an appropriate degree of cynicism" about industry campaigns to promote responsible drinking, Ms Milton said she believed drink producers had an interest in protecting their brands from being linked to scenes of excess.

Targeting tax on problem drinks was a good way to influence the industry because "reducing the level of alcohol does no harm to their sales but reduces the harm to people's health", she said.