STORMONT needs to move urgently to stop supermarkets selling cheap booze, the body which represents Ulster’s pubs has said.
Pubs of Ulster, which speaks on behalf of pubs and many other retail licensed premises across the province, said that there was a “moral responsibility” which came with a liquor licence and called on the executive to act over supermarkets selling alcohol at a loss to attract shoppers.
Chief executive Colin Neill said that such a move was solely about benefiting society and warned that it would do nothing to help struggling pubs.
At the weekend, health minister Edwin Poots said that if cheap alcohol is not tackled by measures such as minimum pricing then society will “reap a very cruel harvest in the years ahead”.
Minimum pricing plans being considered by Stormont would set the minimum price of a bottle of wine at between £3.60 and £6.30 and a pint of strong beer at between £1.20 or £2.10.
Mr Neill said: “We support minimum pricing and always have done. Some people think that it’s about pricing people back to the pub but it isn’t and it won’t because no matter where the minimum price is set, pubs will always be dearer.
“But it is about addressing the misuse of alcohol through prices that are ridiculous.
“When you can get a unit of alcohol for less than 13p, something is wrong; it’s irresponsible. We’re taking extreme measures in our industry to ensure that people act responsibly — if the supermarkets moved themselves then the minister wouldn’t have to take this action.”
He added: “There is a moral responsibility which comes with a liquor licence — it’s a controlled substance and we have to get beyond the letter of the law and respond to the damage caused by excessive drinking.”
Mr Neill said that non-drinkers are effectively subsidising low cost alcohol promotions in supermarkets, something which he said was “unfair” to those who do not drink.
However, he said that without action to deliberately support struggling pubs the industry would continue to face difficult conditions, given the high overheads of liquor and satellite television licences, rates and entertainment costs.
“Stormont may be tempted to wait and see what happens in Scotland, where they are introducing minimum pricing, but we would encourage the ministers to move now and not wait,” he said.
DUP assemblyman Jim Wells, who is to take over as health minister in two years, said that while he understood why some people would be wary of a proposal to increase prices for any product, there were “clear benefits to society whilst only placing a very small cost burden on the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland”.
“The vast majority of people would agree that there is something wrong in society when it is possible to buy alcohol in a supermarket more cheaply than you can buy water. That is the problem which a minimum unit pricing of alcohol would be eliminating,” he said.