Super-strength alcohol killing homeless people

Government moves to impose a minimum cost per unit of alcohol have been backed by a homelessness charity that has campaigned against super-strength drinks - which it claims kill more homeless people than crack and heroin.

Thames Reach, which runs street outreach services and a variety of supported housing projects in London, has urged the Government to increase the price of strong alcoholic drinks and has also called for drink companies to self-regulate.

The charity's chief executive, Jeremy Swain, pointed out that a 500ml can of Carlsberg Special Brew lager can currently be purchased for just over a pound, which under the minimum pricing proposal would rise to over two pounds. He added that a single can takes a drinker above the daily safe alcohol consumption limit recommended by the Department of Health.

Mr Swain said that one drinks supplier, Heineken, had ceased production of White Lightning, a super-strength cider, following a visit to one of the charity's homeless hostels.

The Coalition wants to impose minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol.

Jeremy Swain said: “Thames Reach is backing the Government’s plans for minimum pricing as we believe this measure will help reduce the enormous damage to the health and well-being of vulnerable men and women with alcohol problems caused by the consumption of cheap, extremely strong, super-strength lager and cider.

“There is compelling evidence that drinking behaviour responds to changes in price and if strong super-strength alcohol increases in price we are convinced consumption of these damaging drinks will fall dramatically, leading to far fewer deaths, health problems and anti-social behaviour and offering greater opportunity for problem drinkers to stop drinking altogether. It is absurd and plainly wrong that some of the strongest lagers and ciders are currently also the cheapest.

The drinks industry has complained that the Government's 45p per unit limit plans will fail to resolve problem drinking while hitting the pockets of 'modest' consumers.

Mr Swain continued: “Super-strength drinks are currently killing more homeless people than crack cocaine and heroin, and at Thames Reach we’ve witnessed more than 50 deaths of people we support in the past three years. Minimum pricing will undoubtedly save lives.

“We regret that the drinks industry has not behaved responsibly, though we congratulate Heineken, an honourable exception, who stopped production of White Lightning, a highly damaging super-strength cider following a visit to one of our homeless hostels. Sadly, profit has usually been put before lives and it is inevitable that, if the drinks industry is unable to effectively regulate itself, then direction through minimum pricing has to be imposed to reduce the damage currently being caused to thousands of individuals.”

Councillor Mehboob Khan, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: "Today's announcement of the long-overdue consultation on a minimum price for alcohol marks an important step forward in plans to tackle binge drinking in England. Local authorities, retailers, the police and the NHS are already working hard to address the damaging impacts of problem drinking and a minimum price could make a valuable contribution. However, a minimum price alone is not the solution. 

"We would also like to see drinks manufacturers and retailers working more closely with the Government's new approach to alcohol by bringing an end to irresponsible special promotions and the sale of high strength, low price drinks. Careful consideration must be given to the effect of such measures on responsible drinkers and the night-time economy, but by working together with industry we can encourage a change in attitude towards alcohol and help improve public health across the country.

"Issues such as the number of pubs, bars and off-licences in certain areas and the impact of particular problem venues vary from one town to the next and cannot be dealt with through national policies on simply restricting the availability of cheap booze. To effectively tackle the health problems, violence, vandalism and general public nuisance caused by alcohol abuse we need to have the flexibility to address problems at a local level.

"Government needs to act quickly on its commitment to the local setting of licensing fees, enabling councils to enforce effective penalties on the few irresponsible clubs, pubs and off-licences that fail to protect the community from the impact of excessive drinking."