Charging a minimum price for alcohol would hit heavy drinkers but have little impact on moderate consumers with low incomes, a study has found.
Researchers conducted a computer analysis of how people might be expected to respond to a minimum price for alcohol of 45p per unit, or around £1.35 for a large glass of wine.
They concluded that the policy would make the greatest difference to the 5% of the population whose drinking is categorised as "harmful".
These are men who consume more than 50 units of alcohol a week and women who consume more than 35.
Harmful drinkers in the bottom fifth of the income bracket were predicted to reduce their alcohol intake by almost 300 units per year with minimum pricing.
This group spends on average just under £2,700 a year on alcohol, with around two fifths of the alcohol consumed bought for less than 45p per unit.
In contrast, moderate drinkers in the lowest income group were predicted to reduce their consumption by a mere 3.8 units per year with minimum pricing - the equivalent of two pints of beer.
Dr John Holmes, from the University of Sheffield, who led the study reported in The Lancet medical journal, said: "Overall, the impact of a minimum unit price policy on moderate drinkers would be very small, irrespective of income.
"Policy makers need to balance larger reductions in consumption by harmful drinkers on a low income against the large health gains that could be experienced in this group from reductions in alcohol-related illness and death."
Three quarters of the total reduction in alcohol consumption resulting from minimum pricing would occur in harmful drinkers, according to the research.
A minimum alcohol price was expected to prevent 860 alcohol-related deaths and 29,900 hospital admissions per year.
Co-author Professor Petra Meier, director of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, said: "Our study finds no evidence to support the concerns highlighted by Government and the alcohol industry that minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers on low incomes.
"Instead, minimum unit pricing is a policy that is targeted at those who consume large quantities of cheap alcohol.
"By significantly lowering rates of ill health and premature deaths in this group, it is likely to contribute to the reduction of health inequalities."
Sir Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians' special adviser on alcohol and chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: "It is excellent to have this important confirmation of what we have been telling UK Government - a minimum unit price for alcohol would not damage the pockets of moderate drinkers whatever their income, and is an evidence-based policy that is exquisitely targeted at those, and those around them, who are currently suffering harm.
"It is time for Government to stop listening to the vested interests of the drinks industry and act."
Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, said: "Cheap alcohol is recognised as a key factor in encouraging the harmful use of alcohol.
"The findings of this research add to the growing evidence to support the case for minimum unit pricing. Importantly it helps address Government concerns in relation to the impact of MUP on those who drink responsibly."