Supermarkets have been accused of encouraging binge drinking by continuing to sell alcohol more cheaply than bottled water.
Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s are among those selling beer at just over 5p per 100ml. This contrasts with a typical price of about 8p for 100ml of brand-name mineral water.
Campaigners claim such retailers are “irresponsible”, using cheap alcohol to lure customers, while ignoring warnings from senior health figures that selling it at rock-bottom prices leads to more drinking.
Earlier this year, Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England and Wales, called for minimum pricing for alcohol. He claimed that charging a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol — raising the cost of an average six-pack of lager to £6 — would save up to 3,400 lives a year and cut the number of hospital admissions by 100,000. The alcohol industry and Gordon Brown rejected the idea.
Cut-price deals are now widespread. Last week, Morrisons in Peckham, south London, was offering four 440ml cans of value lager or bitter for 91p, or 5.2p per 100ml. The store sells a litre of Strathmore mineral water for 89p.
Sainsbury’s in New Cross, also in south London, was selling four 440ml cans of own-brand lager and bitter for 91p and 94p respectively. A two-litre bottle of basic cider cost £1.21, or 6.1p per 100ml. A litre bottle of Highland Spring mineral water, meanwhile, was on sale for 8.5p per 100ml.
The Tesco Extra in St Rollox, Glasgow, was offering four 440ml cans of its value lager for 91p. The supermarket charges 85p for a litre of Highland Spring water.
Asda in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, was also selling four 440ml cans of its own-brand Smart Price lager and bitter for just over 5p per 100ml. Strathmore mineral water cost 8.5p per 100ml.
The fact that it is possible to buy beer cheaper than water is seen by campaigners as worrying. Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said government attempts to curb binge drinking were being undermined by supermarket discounting.
“Unless they tackle the problem of cheap alcohol, they are fighting a losing battle,” he said. “The evidence shows young people and harmful drinkers are drawn to very cheap alcohol.
“Supermarkets sell alcohol at a loss because they know it gets people into the stores. A lot of these sales are irresponsible.”
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association added: “It is a real worry that you can buy alcohol cheaper than mineral water. We have a huge problem with alcohol abuse in the UK, so we want a clampdown on these cut-throat price deals.”
Supermarkets denied they were promoting irresponsible drinking, pointing to schemes requiring younger customers to prove their age as evidence of their intention to tackle under-age drinking.
“Our customers expect us to provide them with a wide range of good value products to suit their tastes and budgets,” a Tesco spokeswoman said. Asda points out that its Smart Price sparkling water is 5p a litre.
Ministers are now planning a law to force drinks companies to put warnings on alcohol after an audit by the Department of Health found many leading brands were ignoring a voluntary code agreed with the government. The department is preparing to name firms that fail to abide by the code.
Gillian Merron, the public health minister, said she was angry that companies had ignored requests for bottles and cans to display responsible drinking messages, warnings to pregnant women about the dangers of alcohol and the number of units men and women can safely drink per week.
“Despite good efforts from brands such as Bulmers, Foster’s and others, progress on labelling has been very disappointing. If the voluntary agreement is going to work, I need to see much more action,” Merron said.
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