THE introduction of a minimum unit price for drink has sparked great debate.

While according to some it may be beneficial to heavy drinkers, in particular those with liver problems, others suggest the only people that will be penalised are those without a drink problem.

A new study of liver patients by the University of Southampton shows that a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) policy for alcohol is exquisitely targeted towards the heaviest drinkers with cirrhosis.

Published recently in Clinical Medicine, the peer review journal for the Royal College of Physicians, the researchers studied the amount and type of alcohol drunk by 404 liver patients, and also asked patients how much they paid for alcohol. They found that patients with alcohol related cirrhosis were drinking on average the equivalent of four bottles of vodka each week, and were buying the cheapest booze they could find, paying around 33p per unit, irrespective of their income. In contrast, low risk moderate drinkers were paying on average £1.10 per unit.

If the government set an MUP at 50p, it wouldn’t affect pubs or bars and would have no impact on moderate drinkers; the average cost would be £4 per year and 90 per cent would not be affected at all, the research shows. The impact on heavy drinking liver patients would be at least 200 times higher.

Alcohol is the most important single cause of early death in working age. Over the last 30 years, the UK has seen a fourfold increase in liver deaths as alcohol has become less expensive and more easily available.

Reducing the affordability of alcohol is recognised internationally as the most effective and cost effective means to reduce alcohol related harm.

Professor Nick Sheron, from the University of Southampton, says: “Setting a Minimum Unit Price for alcohol is an almost perfect alcohol policy because it targets cheap booze bought by very heavy drinkers and leaves moderate drinkers completely unaffected. Our research shows that an MUP set at 50p per unit would affect the liver patients killing themselves with cheap alcohol 200 times more than low risk drinkers.

Professor Ian Gilmore, the RCP special advisor on Alcohol and Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, adds: “Once again another robust study has highlighted the possible benefits a Minimum Unit Price could have on those in society who drink most heavily.

“Time and time again it has been shown that those with alcoholic liver disease consume very large quantities of alcohol, and as a result, they purchase the cheapest alcohol, irrespective of their income. The evidence is clear from this study that a Minimum Unit Price would not have a significant effect on low risk drinkers but would target those for whom the impact of alcohol-related liver disease is most devastating."

Hilary McMullen, substance misuse commissioning manager for Public Health, Bradford, says: "Public Health Bradford would support the introduction of alcohol minimum unit pricing to help address alcohol misuse and its associated health problems. As part of a range of measures such as earlier identification of problematic alcohol use and access to help to reduce alcohol consumption, this study shows that minimum unit pricing could be effective in helping to reduce unhealthy levels of drinking, particularly for those that are heavy drinkers."

But pub landlord, Sean Garvey, who runs The Albion in Greengates, the New Inn in Denholme and Dirty Dick's Alehouse in Halifax, says he doesn't believe the introduction of minimum unit pricing for drink is the answer.

"I am totally against it because they are categorising everybody as having a problem," says Sean.

He is also concerned it may prompt problem drinkers to turn to crime to feed their habit.

Sean also wants to see stricter controls on the serving and the availability of alcohol. "Bring back licensing laws. Anybody can get a license now whereas years ago you used to have to go to court and a policeman had to back you, there were stricter laws," he says.

Vicki Beere, operations director at Project 6 in Keighley which works with people with drug and alcohol issues and their families, says alcohol dependency can affect people from all walks of life and they are concerned about the consequences those who cannot afford to feed their habit may find themselves in.

"I guess it is disproportionate on the poorest people who are dependent on alcohol. Some of the possible consequences are people not being able to afford their level of alcohol use which puts them at risk of withdrawal which can be fatal. It puts them at risk of illness, risk of crime - they may feel the need to commit crime to fund their alcohol use. It also puts them at risk of poor nutrition, people have to make choices between eating and drinking, and poor physical health," says Vicki.

"We welcome the debate but would really like to see rather than increased investment in this - to influence minimum pricing will take a lot of time and money - we would rather see the money diverted into increased treatment and support for people suffering from alcohol issues and an increased profile of the prevention agenda."

If you are affected by substance misuse call Project 6 on (01535) 610180.