Supermarkets where beer costs less than water

What is this really costing us?


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Amidst the World Cup frenzy - when supermarkets are falling over themselves to offer cheap deals on lager - an investigation has uncovered three supermarkets where lager is on sale for less than the price of mineral water. The price of the booze conforms to the government's rules which are supposed to prevent the sale of incredibly cheap alcohol.

So what's going wrong - and why is it so concerning?

The investigation by Channel Four's Dispatches tonight will show that Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco are all selling multipacks of lager for less per pint than Perrier. Tesco had Fosters, Carlsberg and Carling all at 69p per pint - compared to Perrier at 73p per pint. Asda had the lagers at 72p per pint and the water at 76p per pint, and Sainsbury's had Fosters at 72p per pint and the water at 76p.

It will highlight that the government had initially proposed bringing in a minimum price per unit of 45p. However, after arguments that this would unfairly hit responsible drinkers on low incomes, the proposals were reformed to simply make it illegal to sell alcohol for less than the cost of the duty on it - effectively meaning a 440ml can of 4% beer can cost as little as 41p.

When Cameron was promoting changes to alcohol pricing in 2012 he said: "When beer is cheaper than water, it's just too easy for people to get drunk on cheap alcohol at home before they even set foot in a pub." The investigation clearly shows that even after the changes have come into effect, beer is still - in many cases - cheaper than water.

Does it matter?

On the one hand, they picked a very expensive bottle of water to compare it with - so it's a relatively meaningless comparison. You can buy mineral water at Asda, for example, for as little as 10p per pint - which wouldn't have made such a sensational story (lager costs seven times as much as mineral water).

On the other hand, selling cheap alcohol in large quantities can hardly be classified as responsible. Professor Petra Meier, principal investigator from Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, said: "The Government has identified the ready availability of cheap alcohol as a key influence on the UK's high rates of alcohol-related harm." The total cost of alcohol harm has been estimated as £20 billion in England, £680 million in Northern Ireland, £3.6 billion in Scotland and £1 billion in Wales. These figures include more than £2 billion in healthcare costs.

Meier was involved in other research highlighting that cheap booze is getting comparatively cheaper. The University of East Anglia recently found that when taxes were increased on alcohol, supermarkets increased the cost of cheaper products less than the tax increase would imply - and increased the price of more expensive booze more than was justified by the tax increase.

It added that the heaviest 5% of drinkers in the UK buy 33% of all shop-bought alcohol and favour cheaper supermarket products. This means that subsidising cheaper alcohol is likely to mean the heaviest drinkers do not cut back, so there are few reductions in harmful drinking as a result of tax increases.

Paul Dobson, professor of Business Strategy and Public Policy at UEA, said: "Subsidising cheap alcohol might be attractive to supermarkets in their efforts to increase the number and frequency of store visits that shoppers make, but it is socially irresponsible when it encourages excessive consumption."

But what do you think? Is this a concern?

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