Northern Ireland

Alcohol: Jim Wells plans to bring in minimum pricing per unit

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Media captionSpeaking to BBC Newsline's Kerry Thompson, Mr Wells said the minimum price would apply to all retailers

Health Minister Jim Wells has said he plans to introduce minimum pricing per unit of alcohol in Northern Ireland.

The policy would set a baseline price below which alcohol cannot be sold.

Jim Wells has the support of his fellow DUP minister, Mervyn Storey, and they hope to carry out a public consultation over the next few months.

Plans by the Scottish government to introduce a minimum price are currently being contested in the European Courts of Justice.

'Healthcare burden'

Explaining his decision, Mr Wells said: "The level of harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland is staggering.

"The total cost to the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to be as high as £900m per year, with the burden to healthcare alone costing up to £240m per year.

"We owe it to those individuals who drink heavily, and their families, to do something about this."

The Department of Health commissioned a report on alcohol pricing from the University of Sheffield.

Mr Wells said that the "research carried out by the University of Sheffield demonstrates that minimum unit pricing (MUP) is a targeted measure, having a modest impact on moderate drinkers but a much greater impact on hazardous and harmful drinkers who make up around 20% of the population, but drink almost 70% of all the alcohol consumed in Northern Ireland."

Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey said: "I share the health minister's concerns in relation to alcohol misuse being a major public health issue and, having read the Sheffield report, I am in full agreement that minimum unit pricing should be adopted as the preferred policy option for Northern Ireland."

Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, welcomed the news.

"For too long, we have seen the damage caused by the proliferation of cheap drink in society and it is time that pricing was tackled in a serious way," he said.

Mr Neill said the availability of very cheap alcohol had had an impact on health and antisocial behaviour.

"Alcohol is a restricted product for a reason and it is imperative that we all take measures to ensure it is promoted and sold responsibly," he said.

'Wrong approach'

However, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said most major retailers believed minimum pricing of alcohol was "unfair to responsible consumers and the wrong approach to tackling excessive consumption".

"It will simply penalise the vast majority of consumers who already drink less than the government's recommended limits," the consortium said in a statement.

A public consultation is expected to take place within the next few months.

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