12:20am Tuesday 18th February 2014
© Press Association 2014
Abandoning annual tax increases on alcohol would be "madness" , experts have warned.
Leading medics said that cheap alcohol is "bringing the NHS to its knees" and causing "mayhem" on the streets of Britain.
If ministers scrapped the duty rise in the 2014 Budget it would put " even more pressure on public services and frontline workers", the Alcohol Health Alliance said.
The alliance - which is made up of leading health bodies including the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the British Medical Association, and charity Alcohol Concern - called on George Osborne to maintain the alcohol duty escalator.
In a letter to Mr Osborne, the group said that freezing duty rises on drink would "unfairly" increase the burden on the public purse.
It argued that t he cost of alcohol harm in the UK is estimated to exceed £21 billion a year - which is more than double the total revenues collected from alcohol duties.
The letter states that t he alcohol duty escalator - which goes up by inflation plus 2% each year - is beneficial to economy, society and public health.
The escalator was scrapped for beer in the Chancellor's last Budget, b ut it is still in place for wine and spirits.
Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: " It would be madness if the alcohol industry lobby managed to convince the Chancellor to make cheap drink even cheaper at a time when strong white cider can be sold for 6p per unit.
"Scrapping the duty escalator would be going against yet another Government commitment to tackle the cheap alcohol that is causing mayhem on our streets and bringing our health service to its knees.
"Furthermore, making alcohol more affordable poses a real risk to vulnerable groups such as young women. With almost a third of female drinkers aged 16 to 24 drinking the equivalent of nine shots of vodka in a session each week, we need to be doing everything in our powers to curb excessive alcohol consumption, not encouraging it by lowering the price."
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance and the RCP's special adviser on alcohol, said: " To suggest scrapping the duty escalator at a time when current levels of alcohol tax revenue do not even meet half the cost of alcohol-related harm to our society is deplorable.
"Parliament has been absolutely right to support the duty escalator since 2008 - it has played an important role in addressing the affordability of cheap alcohol that creates an enormous burden on society. Government needs to stand strong on this issue - the taxpayer is already paying too much to foot the bill of alcohol related harm, now is not the time to scrap the alcohol duty escalator. Society simply cannot afford it."
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association claims that UK tax duty plus VAT now accounts for 79% of the average price of a bottle of spirit and 57% of a bottle of wine.
The organisation has called for an end to the duty escalator, saying that a period free of tax rises would allow the sector to "grow" and "play its part in the UK's economic growth".
Other organisations have also called for the measure to be scrapped.
Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: " The escalator has already been abolished for beer, and rightly so, as the Government has acknowledged this is vital for pubs.
"If the Chancellor wants the most 'bang for his buck', action on beer duty should be the top priority, as it delivers the greatest possible support to pubs and secures vital jobs. This is because beer sales account for 66% of pub sales, compared to wine (12%) and spirits (13%).
"And this is before even considering the British beer supply chain, which from barley and hop growers, to maltsters and brewers, is very largely a UK-based industry, with a huge impact on UK jobs."
Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), added: "Most responsible consumers would be outraged to learn that since the alcohol duty escalator was introduced in 2008, tax on wine has increased by 50% and on spirits by 44%.
" Independent research from Ernst and Young has found that if the Chancellor scraps the escalator in his upcoming budget this would boost public finances by £230 million in 2014 alone, and create more than 6,000 jobs.
"Scrapping the escalator would also help pubs, given wine and spirits sales account for 42% of the value of alcohol products sold in pubs, bars and restaurants."
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