A ban on cheap alcohol will be in force before the start of the football World Cup finals as part of Government efforts to curb problem drinking. Supermarkets and other shops will be barred from selling booze at below cost price from April 6 under new licensing restrictions.
In its justification for the crackdown, the Home Office pointed to a study showing low-price offers were often associated with major sporting events.
Ministers hope the move will cut down on youngsters "pre loading" on low-price drinks, reducing the likelihood of violence and injury. Potential savings to the NHS are put at £5.3 million a year, law and order £3.6 million and £500,000 in reduced absenteeism from work. But campaigners remain angry that the Government shelved plans to set a minimum unit price for alcohol and to ban multi-buy offers.
The below-cost ban was dismissed as "laughable" by Alcohol Concern which said it was near impossible to implement and failed to tackle the real problem drinks marketed at young people. A 2008 watchdog review found six out of seven major supermarkets were selling alcohol below cost price - a total of 220.2 million litres per year.
Under the new restrictions, a floor price is set at the duty payable on an alcoholic drink plus VAT. It means a 440ml can of 5%-strength beer cannot be sold for less than 50p, a 750ml bottle of vodka for under £10.16 and a bottle of 12.5% wine for £2.41. Duty free sales on ships, aircraft, trains, airports and ferry terminals are exempt, as is beer with a strength of 1.2% or less.
The Home Office impact assessment concluded that individual's consumption is expected to fall by 0.04% overall - a "comparatively small" decrease. While problem drinkers would be most affected, there would be a "limited impact on responsible consumers who drink moderate amounts of alcohol".
"There is a risk that consumers could maintain or reduce their current consumption levels to a greater degree than the evidence suggests," it adds.
Research suggests people who drink large quantities of cheap alcohol at home before going out - known as pre-loading - are 2.5 times more likely to engage in violence. Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said: "The coalition Government is determined to tackle alcohol-fuelled crime, which costs England and Wales around £11 billion a year.
"Banning the sale of alcohol below duty plus VAT will stop the worst examples of very cheap and harmful drink. It is part of a wide range of action we are taking, including challenging the drinks industry to play a greater role in tackling alcohol abuse. We have also given local areas the power to restrict the sales of alcohol in the early hours and ensure those who profit from a late night licence help pay towards the costs of policing."
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Eric Appleby, chief executive at Alcohol Concern said: "The idea that banning below cost sales will help tackle our problem with alcohol is laughable "It's confusing and close to impossible to implement. On top of this, reports show it would have an impact on just 1% of alcohol products sold in shops and supermarkets leaving untouched most of those drinks that are so blatantly targeted at young people.
"The Government is wasting time when international evidence shows that minimum unit pricing is what we need to save lives and cut crime."
There was good news for football fans wanting to savour their team's performance with a drink yesterday, when David Cameron overruled Mr Baker to demand pubs be allowed to open late. The Home Office had rejected a request from the British Beer and Pub Association asking for an extension of licensing times to 1am across the country for the clash with Italy on June 14, which kicks off at 11pm.
Mr Baker turned down the proposal, leaving pubs with the option of applying individually to local authorities for a licence extension - at a cost of £21 each. But the Prime Minister ordered a rethink. Ministers have the power to relax the rules to mark an occasion of "exceptional international, national or local significance", as was done for the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee.
The move also comes amid controversy over a drinking craze sweeping social media which has been blamed for a death in Ireland. Jonny Byrne, 19, from Carlow in the Irish Republic, drowned after taking part in "neknomination" stunt which sees people being challenged to post a video online of them downing drinks, then nominating others to do the same.
Shadow crime and security minister Diana Johnson said: "Banning below-cost sales was announced when the Government first took office. It was then announced again when the Government U-turned on introducing minimum unit pricing. Now, three years later, we are hearing this for the third time.
"No amount of relaunching and reheating will fool anyone that ministers are serious about its alcohol strategy. The Government think this will increase the price of 1.3% of drinks sold, while the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks this figure will be just 0.02% of cider. Nobody thinks it's going to have a real impact on our high streets or A&E departments on a Saturday night.
"This is the Home Secretary who U-turned on minimum-unit pricing and multi-buy promotions, who promised licensing reforms that never materialised and who introduced a late night levy which raised no money in its first year. Theresa May needs to do better."