By Daniel Hunter

Introducing a minimum price for alcohol and banning discounted multi-buy deals could see a surge in potentially dangerous black market booze, public health leaders are warning.

They say the Government's focus on making alcohol less affordable could risk pushing cash-strapped adults to buy cheap counterfeit wines and spirits which could make them blind or even kill them.

Speaking at the Local Government Association's Alcohol Strategy Conference today (Tuesday, 17 April), public health experts said attempts to increase alcohol prices would also fail to curb binge drinking or tackle the associated anti-social behaviour and health problems it creates.

The LGA wants to see reduced bureaucracy of the current licensing system to allow councils to act more quickly on residents' concerns, local authorities given the power to decide locally how to spend a late night levy on night clubs and bars, and local health experts given a say on the opening of new off-licenses selling cheap alcohol.

Cllr David Rogers, Chair of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board, said:

"We are concerned that targeting cheap alcohol could push people to the black market and cheaper drinks. When drinking counterfeit brands, you can never be sure what you are putting into your body. People who think they are getting a bargain could end up making themselves blind or even drinking themselves to death.

"We know there is no simple solution to alcohol abuse but tackling cheap drinks is only one part of the problem. Focusing solely on making alcohol less affordable will fail to address the root causes of binge drinking as well as the nuisance, vandalism and risks to health it causes.

"National gestures like minimum pricing and banning multi-buy discounts will only go so far in deterring binge drinking and don't take into account the varying issues in town and city centres across the country. We need to see councils given the powers and flexibility to tackle problems locally.

"We now need a system that allows local authorities to act on the concerns of the people in their area by saying ‘no' to a new late night club on a street that is already saturated with them. We also want to see health experts given a say on whether the opening of a corner shop selling cheap booze could contribute to alcohol dependency in a particular area."

In the past, tests on bottles of fake vodka seized by council trading standards officers around the country have revealed alarming levels of methanol, a key ingredient used to make anti-freeze, which could potentially lead to blindness or death.

Other industrial chemicals like isopropanol, used in cleaning fluids, and chloroform, used in pesticides, have also been found in bogus brands.

This month, Southampton City Council's Trading Standards team seized 124 bottles of fake vodka and wine from a local newsagent. The haul included 35 Jacobs Creek wine bottles with incorrect spellings of Australia and 45 bottles of Arctic Ice vodka, a brand that was found to be made-up.

Recently a shopkeeper was fined £16,000 after Surrey County Council Trading Standards seized fake Glen's vodka which, when tested, contained 235 times more methanol than the legal limit. Just five teaspoons of methanol can be fatal.

While in Staffordshire, trading standards officers acted after people reported suffering from burning throats after drinking vodka that was later found to contain methanol. A recent crackdown has found suspected counterfeit alcohol in more than one in six (18 per cent) of off-licenses in the county.

The LGA is now calling for the introduction of a broad package of measures which would give local areas the flexibility to address problems that are particular to them through licensing powers and the new public health role for councils.

This includes ensuring the bureaucracy in the licensing system is reduced to allow local authorities to act more quickly on the concerns of people in their local area. This would include being able to refuse permission for a new night club or bar on a street that already has a proliferation of them.

In addition, health experts should be given a say on whether the opening of a corner shop selling cheap booze could contribute to alcohol dependency in a particular area.

The LGA has also called for late-night pubs and nightclubs to contribute towards the cost of cleaning up the mess caused by rowdy alcohol-fuelled nights out through a late-night levy, with the police and councils able to decide locally how to spend and share the money.

Responsibility for alcohol services moves from the NHS to local government from April 2013.

Join us on
Follow @freshbusiness