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Britain Spikes Alcohol Price to Combat Drinking

— Prime Minister David Cameron plans to tackle binge drinking in England with a minimum 90-cent price for a unit of alcohol, raising the cost of a bottle of whisky to at least $20.20.

The Home Office in London, starting a public consultation on alcohol pricing yesterday, said it will examine banning multi-buy promotions, look at cutting red tape for responsible vendors and set up a new health-related objective for alcohol licensing.

The government is seeking to reduce irresponsible drinking that costs the taxpayer 21 billion pounds a year in police and medical bills, even as the drinks industry argues the proposal is a blunt instrument that does not tackle alcohol abuse.

“What we’re trying to stop specifically is very cheap, very strong alcohol, because that’s what contributes most to the terrible scenes we see in too many of our cities on a Friday and Saturday night of hugely drunk people,” Policing Minister Damian Green told BBC Radio 5.

“The reason for doing minimum unit pricing and not just increasing taxes is precisely to hit those irresponsible offerings of very cheap, very strong lager - it can’t be right that you can buy a can of lager for 20p when a bottle of water will cost ten times that much,” Green said. “Clearly we’ve got out of kilter with this very cheap, very strong lager.”

“We believe minimum pricing is an ineffectual policy, which unfairly penalizes all consumers - the majority of whom drink alcohol responsibly,” said Andrew Cowan, country director for Britain at Diageo Plc, the maker of Johnnie Walker Scotch.” The company favors “targeted intervention programs” instead, he said.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association estimates a 45 pence minimum unit price would see 52 percent of retail prices rise, with a basic bottle of whisky going up from 10.32 pounds. There would be price rises for 71 percent of vodka, 62 percent of whisky and 38 percent of wine.

Cameron overruled Cabinet dissent to introduce the measure, according to a spokesman, who declined to be named under U.K. government rules.

The Scottish government is awaiting a ruling from the European Commission on whether its plans to introduce a 50-pence minimum price per alcohol unit breach European Union trade laws. The Scotch Whisky Association is also seeking a judicial review in the Scottish courts.

“Although the minimum alcohol pricing proposals do not raise competition-law concerns, as in Scotland, they may be susceptible to legal challenge,” said Clare Thomas, head of food and drink at law firm Addleshaw Goddard in London.