Campaigners across Blackpool today told of their growing fears for the town’s health after a Gazette probe uncovered off-licences selling super strength cider for less than the cost of a bottle of water.
In some shops in the town we were able to buy 500ml cans of Omega - a 7.5 per cent strength white cider - for just 89p, with bottled water on sale either at the same price or more expensive.
The worrying findings come as the town’s public health chief Dr Arif Rajpura writes to the Prime Minister urging a crackdown on strong, cheap booze by introducing a minimum price for alcohol.
And it also comes amid a shocking toll of booze related death and health problems across the resort, with Blackpool having the highest number of alcohol-related deaths in the country.
One campaigner today said: “When alcohol is cheaper than a bottle of water it’s clear that we have a problem.”
At Buy Low Bargains, Central Drive, our reporter bought Omega for the manufacturer-set price, as stated on the can, for 89p, but the cheapest bottle of water was £1.
At Costcutter, also on Central Drive, the cheapest bottle of water matched the Omega’s 89p. The low-cost cider was also found on sale at two other town centre shops.
Today health chiefs in Blackpool made fresh calls for drinks to be sold at a minimum of 50p per unit, which would see the price of Omega soar to £3.75.
Steve Morton, NHS Blackpool’s alcohol lead, said: “Minimum prices would have minimal effect on the average person – something like 12p a week – but it would deter young vulnerable people from buying cheap, strong alcohol.
“High strength, low cost alcohol tends to be drunk by people with an alcohol problem and younger people who want to get as much alcohol as cheaply as possible because they have limited means.
“Minimum prices need to come in through legislation, but in the mean time responsible traders should be looking at stopping selling strong alcohol.
“The industry needs to take some responsibility – a dead customer is no customer at all.” Official figures show Blackpool has the highest number of deaths from alcohol-related illnesses in the country, and last year 2,914 people were admitted to hospital because of alcohol diseases. Between 2010 and 2012, 140 died from alcohol-related diseases.
And shockingly, doctors at Blackpool Victoria Hospital say they have treated a man aged just 23 for advanced alcohol cirrhosis and regularly see teenagers in alcohol-induced comas.
The alarming figures have led to Dr Rajpura, Blackpool’s Director of Public Health, to call on Prime Minister David Cameron to introduce the minimum price.
Dr Mark Hendrickse, gastroenterologist at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, said doctors at The Vic were seeing patients dying younger of liver failure because of their drinking.
He said: “There is a clear link when you look at alcohol-related mortality and the availability of low-cost strong alcohol, and in countries where they have introduced minimum pricing death rates from alcohol use have gone down.
“This is causing a real problem which we are seeing on our wards, and the fact that you can buy strong alcohol cheaper than water is a major concern.
“One issue I suppose is that Blackpool is an entertainment town, so we have to have cheap alcohol, but the other side is that we are seeing the direct effects of that in the hospital.”
Emily Robinson, deputy chief executive of campaign group Alcohol Concern, which is supporting the minimum pricing campaign, said: “When alcohol is cheaper than a bottle of water it’s clear that we have a problem.
“Excessive alcohol consumption is taking a heavy toll on the health of the nation and we’re all paying towards a £21bn annual bill because of it. Our hospitals are straining from the burden of it and our police forces are stretched to their limits because of it.
“If we’re to turn this health crisis around we have to take action on alcohol sold at pocket money prices through minimum unit pricing.”
Omega is produced by Booker wholesalers as one of its “own label” brands.
A spokesman said: “Booker is a wholesaler. Our customers are independent retailers and are responsible for setting their own prices but they usually sell 500ml of water price-marked at 39p.”
A spokesman for Costcutter said: “Costcutter Supermarkets Group is a responsible retail group and we work closely with manufacturers, industry bodies and the authorities to ensure we and our members operate responsibly and within guidelines and legislation. We are committed to the government’s Alcohol Unit Reduction pledge and fully support the long running Drink Aware programme.”
They refused to be drawn on the Central Drive store or the low price of Omega.
Sam Meak, manager at Buy Low Bargains, on Central Drive, defended the shop’s decision to sell Omega Cider.
He said: “They are alcoholics so they don’t mind if they buy it cheap or whatever, they would buy the cider if it was £20.”
When asked, Mr Meak said he felt sorry for those afflicted with alcoholism.
But when asked whether his shop should be more responsible in its pricing of strong drinks, he added: “I can’t say anything.”