‘We’ve got a massive issue here – it’s alcohol sold at pocket money prices...’

Dr Arif Rajpura
Dr Arif Rajpura
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Given Dr Arif Rajpura is Director of Public Health in Blackpool, and therefore no doubt earns a half-decent wage, it is unlikely he does his weekly shop in the stores on Central Drive.

But that is not to say Dr Rajpura is uneducated when it comes to that part of town.

In fact he knows more than most. It’s his job to know every inch of the resort.

And one thing he knows is enough to get him foaming at the mouth in anger – that in certain stores on Central Drive, and no doubt in various other areas of Blackpool, it is cheaper to buy a pint of super-strength cider or lager than it is to purchase bottled water.

We’re talking over the phone, but one can almost sense Dr Rajpura shaking his head as he discusses an issue which pains him.

“This is a massive problem – strong alcohol being sold at pocket-money price,” he says.

“We want Blackpool to be a family-based resort, to attract mum, dad, and their children, grandparents too, to come to the resort and have a great time.

“So what we don’t want is to have that tarnished by an alcohol problem.

“We need to get away from the negative connotations we’ve got with alcohol-related problems.

“I want to see us change our image and become a more family-friendly environment, not be as reliant on alcohol as the main offer to tourists.”

A year ago a Gazette investigation revealed that some stores on Central Drive in the centre of the resort were selling 500ml cans of Omega – a 7.5 per cent strength white cider – for just 89p, with the cheapest bottled water costing more.

It sparked concern and calls for actions from campaigners about just how easy it is to get hold of cheap booze, something especially concerning in a town with one of the highest levels of alcohol-related illnesses in Great Britain.

Twelve months on, The Gazette ventured back to Central Drive and visited the same stores to see if the pricing had been altered.

It hadn’t. It still cost only 89p for a can of Omega in, for example, Costcutter and in Buy Low Bargains a few hundred metres away. Water was priced either the same or higher.

While Gazette reporters were on the premises, several men – clearly intoxicated, or well on the way – wandered into shops on the street to purchase more beer.

Dr Rajpura knows it is happening but unlike most people, he isn’t content to sit back and let it carry on.

He is actively campaigning for the introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol. He wants a minimum of 50p per every unit of alcohol.

He thought he had won the battle when the current Government announced a new Alcohol Strategy, but there was a U-turn and it didn’t happen.

But Dr Rajpura is not one to give up.

If his idea is not going to be implemented nationally, he wants to persuade the powers-that-be locally to introduce it.

“In the absence of minimum unit price at national level we need to look at what we can do at a local level, to see if we can introduce a by-law to make it happen,” he explained.

“That might require by-laws which would need the support of the politicians,

“And we’d need other authorities to support us, because there is no point doing it just in Blackpool if people can go across the border into Wyre and Fylde and get cheap booze there.

“So if we could get Lancashire in on a scheme like this, or in fact the north west as a whole…I mean why can’t we have the north-west going ahead with a minimum price policy?

“I am passionate about this and I am exploring the possibility of making it happen – it is ongoing work.”

The Gazette only looked at the price of alcohol in stores on Central Drive.

The depressing thing is, says Dr Rajpura, it would be the same story in many other shops on many other streets across the resort.

“You’d get exactly the same pattern – alcohol being sold at very cheap prices and that is the stuff drunk by people already suffering from alcohol related harm,” he said.

As well as cheap alcohol there are other problems to solve – availability (the amount of off-licences in Blackpool selling cheap booze) and promotion (adverts for alcohol).

It is a problem which needs solving because of the financial strain it is putting on the town.

According to recent research done by Dr Rajpura and his colleagues, alcohol-related problems cost £618 per person in Blackpool.

“That is a staggering figure, and it worked out that was the highest price per resident in the north of England,” he added. That’s the impact on health and cost to NHS, street cleaning impact, lost days or work.

“Then there is the anti social behaviour it results in, crime and violence, neglect ... all of these things having an impact on wider society - and all of that is a drain on public resource and public purse.

“By tackling this we will not only improve health, crime and violence figures, and reduce neglect, but we will also see a reduction in costs to public services - and that is key factor people often miss.”

Dr Rajpura knows it will take time to get his minimum unit price introduced and for the effect of that change to be felt on the streets of Blackpool.

“But I’ve already been campaigning for this for the last five or six years and I’m not going to give up now,” he added.

Only time will tell as to whether he succeeds. But given the situation in this town, it is surely better to try and fail than not to try at all.