A national minimum price for alcohol could help some of the 39,000 Birmingham residents risking their health by drinking too much, senior city officials have told MPs.
But bars and nightclubs in the city centre have already introduced what is effectively a voluntary minimum pricing scheme, MPs were told.
Efforts to tackle alcohol abuse in the city were highlighted when the Commons Health Committee quizzed Jacqui Kennedy, Birmingham City Council’s director of regulation and enforcement, and Barry Eveleigh, lead commissioner for drug treatment, at Birmingham drug and alcohol action team, which is a partnership involving the council, the police and other public bodies.
In England, the Government has proposed a minimum pice of 40p per unit, but the drinks industry has warned that it could challenge minimum pricing in the courts.
Ms Kennedy and Mr Eveleigh said they backed minimum pricing as a way of reducing problem drinking, but warned it could also have some negative consequences such as increasing demand for drugs. An estimated 39,000 people in Birmingham had “harmful and high risk” drinking habits, Mr Everleigh told the committee, while 22,000 are believed to be dependent on alcohol.
Ms Kennedy said venues in Broad Street and the area around the Arcadian Centre known as Southside had effectively agreed to impose minimum pricing.
“There were venues previously that would offer five double vodkas and Red Bull for a fiver. So we stopped all that and that was done through a voluntary agreement with the venues in Broad Street and in Southside.”
However, the council had no power to impose minimum pricing and had only avoided a legal challenge because the system was voluntary, she said.
“We haven’t been legally challenged on it yet, but I have been threatened with it, so I am anticipating that, and then we’ll have to revisit it. At the moment its a voluntary code among the businesses. For the business, certainly Broad Street and Southside, commercially it’s more beneficial to them to have people paying full price.”
Venues also realised that they were more profitable if they were not associated with drunken behaviour, she said.
“In 2004 Birmingham got a really bad reputation about high crime, high anti social behaviour, all associated with Broad Street.”
The business improvement districts in Broad Street and Southside, which involved businesses paying a small amount of extra tax in return for extra public services such as street cleaning, had encouraged firms to behave responsibly, she said.
But minimum pricing could not solve the problem of drinkers “pre-loading” on drinks before they went out, she said.
“It has reduced anti-social behaviour significantly and crime and disorder.
“In terms of young people pre-loading and then coming in to the city, that is still an issue for Birmingham.”
Ms Kennedy also called for measures to cut the price of soft drinks in venues.
Officials also wanted to encourage the opening of non-alcoholic nightclubs, which might have a ready-made market among young people who did not drink for religious or cultural reasons.
The Government is to hold a consultation on minimum pricing for alcohol in England and Wales over the summer. Legislation is expected to be introduced in autumn, with the minimum price coming into force in 2014.