23/03/2012 08:05 GMT

Alcohol Price Hike To Tackle 'Acute' Problem Of Binge Drinking

Theresa May has said the problem of binge drinking is so "acute" that the government needs to bring in a minimum price for alcohol.

The government introduced its plans on Friday morning to bring in a minimum price per unit of alcohol as part of proposals intended to "turn the tide" against irresponsible drinking, which costs the UK an estimated £21 billion a year.

May said there was a "significant minority in this country who drink dangerously and cause disproportionate harm" leading to "drunken brawls", which made town centres no-go areas for many people.

"It needn't be like this," she told the Commons. "Alcohol can be consumed responsibility, a drink can be enjoyable not dangerous."

May said that that while the price of "dangerous drinks", such a special brew lagers would rise, it would not accept a price hike of a normal pint in a local pub.

"Those who enjoy a quiet drink or two have nothing to fear from our proposals," she said.

The home secretary told MPs that studies showed alcohol consumption was linked to its price. "Young people are particularly sensitive to changes in price, increasing alcohol prices lowers their alcohol consumption," she said.

Labour have indicated that they will support measures to bring in minimum prices, but the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has criticised the government for announcing the measures today.

Cooper said the government had rushed out the announcement ahead of schedule in order to distract the media from its negative coverage of Wednesday's Budget.

"The way that it has been done is a complete shambles," she said. "Why are we debating this today rather than on Monday when this was previously planned?"

It is highly unusual for a statement of this sort to be made to parliament on a Friday, when a large number of MPs will be away from Westminster in their constituencies.

Cooper noted that there had only been three government statements on a Friday in recent years, one on the Iraq War, one on swine flu, and one on Libya - all of which involved "serious issues around a national emergency".

"What is the national emergency today?" she asked. "The home secretary is being used a human shield for the prime minister and chancellor and she should have said no."

However, the plans have been branded as "seriously misguided" by the drinks industry.

The British Retail Consortium's food director, Andrew Opie, said minimum pricing was effectively a "tax on responsible drinkers".

He added: "David Cameron is seriously misguided. It's simplistic to imagine a minimum price is some sort of silver bullet solution to irresponsible drinking.

"It's a myth to suggest that supermarkets are the problem or that a pub is somehow a safer drinking environment.

"It's retailers not pubs that have led the way on preventing under-age sales, providing unit labelling and funding the Drinkaware campaign.

"And retailers are active, founding participants in the Government's own health responsibly deal."

The prime minister's announcement did win some support though; Eric Appleby, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "This is a victory for common sense.

"We cannot carry on with a situation where it's cheaper to buy cans of lager than a can of Coke."