By Daniel Martin
As many as 40,000 drinkers are dying every year because the Government has utterly failed to deal with Britain's alcohol problem, leading experts said yesterday.
Doctors and academics lined up to condemn round-the-clock drinking, brought in by Labour, and the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets.
One accused supermarkets of having the 'morality of the crack dealer' for selling cut-price alcohol. Others criticised Gordon Brown for appearing to rule out a minimum alcohol price, saying this was the only way to defuse the binge-drinking timebomb.
Timebomb: 24-hour drinking has been blamed for the sharp rise in alcohol-related deaths, now hitting 40,000 a year
Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, told MPs that the number of alcohol-induced deaths was much higher than the official figure of 8,000. These are cases where alcohol is directly mentioned on death certificates.
He said up to five times as many deaths are directly caused by drink, including some cancers, high blood pressure leading to stroke and heart attacks, and violence.
Professor Gilmore warned that the number of alcohol deaths is comparable to the numbers dying as a result of obesity. And although 80,000 die every year through smoking, alcohol death rates are rising sharply and look likely to overtake smoking in coming years as more people quit.
He firmly blamed the Government for the deteriorating situation, saying that Department of Health strategies on reducing harm from alcohol were scuppered because they came at the same time as Home Office 24-hour drinking laws.
'It was in my view unfortunate that the plan coincided with a change in licensing laws which made it easier for places to stay open longer, and made it more difficult to turn down applications for licences, with no need to take public health into account,' he told the all-party Commons health select committee.
'In that respect I think Government strategy has not worked.'
Counting the cost: Professor Gilmore said a minimum 50p per unit cost for drinking would not affect someone enjoying a pint, but could reduce a heavy drinker's input
He blamed cut-price supermarket deals for the surge in binge drinking, sparking a trend for young people to drink cheap alcohol at home before heading to bars and pubs.
Addiction: Researchers say the availability of cheap alcohol is leading to habit-forming drinking at home
He backed last month's call by chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson for a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, and criticised Gordon Brown for rejecting the idea on the grounds that it would penalise the vast majority of sensible drinkers.
Professor Gilmore said the 'overwhelming' evidence was that a minimum price would affect only heavy drinkers. While it could cause the price of a bottle of cheap cider to rise five-fold, it would not affect the price of a pint in a pub.
He added: 'I think the biggest change in drinking habits in this country is buying from supermarkets at heavily discounted prices and drinking relatively quietly at home and developing either dependency or physical problems.
'It's never been cheaper in real terms than it currently is and it's never been more available.'
Another witness, Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England, said: 'Supermarkets at the moment are displaying the morality of the crack dealer. They have been told for several years that what they are doing is completely irresponsible. Cheap alcohol kills people.'
He also condemned pubs for specifically targeting young women.
He said: 'These days if you look at any group of town centre pubs, all the advertising is aimed at young women and there are discriminatory offers such as "women can drink free tonight".
'The degree of unrestrained and quite irresponsible marketing that we've seen in the UK is possibly the worst in Europe.'
Professor Plant warned that alcohol was a 'gateway drug' leading to cannabis and cocaine addiction in many teenagers.
Dr Peter Anderson, a public health consultant, said ministers had been too lenient with the drinks industry.
'Over the last ten to 12 years, Government-policy has led to an increase in the consumption of alcohol, particularly by letting alcohol become more affordable,' he said.
However Richard Dodd from the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said: 'There's no relation between price and irresponsible consumption.
'All you will do by changing the law is penalise the vast majority of people who buy alcohol as part of their regular weekly shop and consume it perfectly responsibly.
'A minimum price will do nothing about irresponsible consumption, which is to do with culture and education.'
At present, 2.9million people in the UK are classed as dependent on alcohol.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'Alcohol is one of the most challenging public health issues we face. We are working harder than ever to reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions, and to help those who regularly drink too much or are dependent on alcohol.'