Anne Milton warned there would not be “one silver bullet” to deal with drinking problems when the Government’s alcohol strategy is published next month
But the junior health minister said one of the key goals was to “remove significant number of units of alcohol from the UK market through changes in how alcohol is produced and sold”.
“Quality above quantity is something we’re aiming to do,” she said. “We can’t turn this problem around overnight but we’re deadly serious about a deadly problem.”
In the strategy, ministers are expected to unveil measures to increase the price of alcoholic drinks according to how strong they are. This could be done through higher taxation per unit, minimum pricing per unit or simply higher levels of duty for strong drinks. Ministers will also encourage companies to produce weaker alcoholic drinks.
Prime Minister David Cameron is known to have sympathy with the idea of minimum pricing, which medics say could save nearly 10,000 lives per year if set at 50p per unit.
However, legal complications may mean ministers opt for the simpler concepts of either higher taxation per unit or more duty for strong drinks.
The strategy was meant to be published earlier this year, but it has been delayed for some weeks while the issue of taxation is debated within Downing Street, the Treasury, the Home Office and the Department of Health.
Yesterday, Ms Milton said: “I know the issue of price setting will carry on. There are some misconceptions about the use of the term minimum unit pricing… The fact is that shops sell alcohol at a loss to get customers through the door. That can encourage binge drinking.
“That is why we are committed to banning the sale of alcohol below cost. It is an important first step. There are many different ways to achieve this aim and we will continue to review all the evidence and the alcohol strategy will outline our steps to tackle this issue.”
Doctors groups, including the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Association, strongly support the toughest option of minimum pricing per unit.
A coalition of churches is now adding to these calls, after a study showing six in ten people feel excessive drinking is blighting their communities.
The Church of England, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Union of Great Britain, have all written to the Prime Minister urging him to consider strong measures to tackle “current levels of ill health and public disorder”.
They say “a ban on below-cost sales, a special tax on strong beers or a voluntary code for advertising are likely to be inadequate”.
Ms Milton said current ways of tackling binge-drinking would be strengthened in the new strategy by a “life course approach” to educating people about the dangers of alcohol.
She said children will be taught how much alcohol is safe to drink, working age adults warned about the serious consequences of drinking more than their weekly limits and older people told about reduced quality of life due to alcohol dependence.
“Excessive drinking affects our communities, ruins lives and all too often ends them,” Ms Milton said.
The minister was speaking in a Westminster debate called by Dr Sarah Wollaston, an MP and former family doctor campaigning for alcohol to be sold at higher prices.
Dr Wollaston said the Government had a “blind-spot” when it came to the scale of Britain’s problems with alcohol.
“If a jumbo jet laden with passengers crashed over Britain every fortnight we would see some pretty drastic action. This is what we’re talking about with alcohol,” she said.