The government is widely expected to ditch its plans for minimum pricing of alcohol in England and Wales.
Opponents within the government are thought to have convinced the Treasury the policy will punish hard-up Brits and fail to tackle problem drinkers.
Chancellor George Osborne is widely reported to be planning to confirm the U-turn in next week’s Budget, although there is speculation alternative plans may be announced that will target the prices of some drinks through taxation.
Senior cabinet figures, including home secretary Theresa May, are said to have won a battle of wills with David Cameron, a strong supporter of the policy, who has claimed it is needed to rid the country of the “scourge of binge drinking”. May would have had to lead regulation to bring in minimum pricing – likely to involve legal battles lasting several years.
However, alternative plans could still emerge – including an increase in duty on specific high-alcohol products, and a clampdown on supermarket deals and marketing.
Victory for the drinks industry
Nonetheless, a retreat on minimum pricing would be a major victory for the drinks industry. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) has spearheaded a campaign backed by leading retailers and drinks companies to halt the moves.
“Consumers will welcome the report that the prime minister is reconsidering plans to hike up the cost of alcohol,” said chief executive of the WSTA Miles Beale.
“Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge drinker” - Miles Beale, WSTA
“Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge drinker. Evidence has also shown it will do little to tackle problem drinking,” he added.
“When families are struggling to make ends meet the government should not push ahead with this policy – nor push up prices further at the Budget through the alcohol duty escalator.”
Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, said: “We would welcome the government dropping the proposal. Minimum unit pricing does not target problem drinkers - it simply hits the vast majority of consumers who drink responsibly.”
Former shadow home secretary David Davis said the policy was a “blunderbuss” idea that would punish responsible drinkers.
Last week HMRC figures showed that overall UK alcohol consumption was continuing to fall - down 16% since 2004 and 3.3% since 2012 alone.
However, health campaigners have reacted unfavourably to the news that the government is about to ditch the policy, withTory MP and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston saying she was “devastated” at the move.
“When people run into problems with alcohol it is the cheap alcohol which they target. People are dying,” she told the BBC.