England alcohol
Alcohol lines shelves in an Off License in Brixton in London, England. - 

Alcohol abuse is one of the U.K.’s most intractable problems. About a quarter of the British population is believed to be drinking to excess and it’s costing the country a packet. The state-run National Health Service spends more than $4 billion a year dealing with the effects of binge drinking and the  overall economic cost -- in booze-related crime, accidents and lost productivity -- has been put at a staggering $35 billion.

Home Office Minister Damien Green says cheap booze is largely to blame. He says the most obvious manifestation is the epidemic of public drunkenness: “City centers on a Friday and Saturday night often become a vision of hell," he says. “And a lot of this is fueled by very cheap, very strong alcohol.”

So he has come up with a plan: a minimum price for alcohol.

Some British supermarkets sell a can of beer for as little as 32 cents. The government is proposing a big, mandatory price hike so that a can of strong lager would cost at least $2 50. The minimum for a bottle of wine would be $6.75. Supermarket manager Guy Mason is one of many retailers that oppose the plan.

“The idea of putting a minimum unit price on alcohol," he says, “is going to punish the majority of our customers that drink responsibly just to try and affect the behavior of a small number of people who misuse alcohol."

But the government insists that it is not a small number of misusers; it’s almost a quarter of the population. 

And the government claims that its minimum price  would cut alcohol consumption by 4.3 percent. The number of crimes would fall by 24,000 a year. And there would be 2,000 fewer deaths.

The plan is likely to be challenged in the courts.