In comments it supplied to the Competition Commission as part of its investigation into the grocery market, and posted on the Commission's web site, Scottish & Newcastle UK says it is worried about the impact of the major multiples' willingness to invest in cheap beer and cider prices in a bid to drive footfall.
"We strongly believe that the sale of alcoholic drinks at low cost, used primarily to drive footfall in stores, is not consistent with the promotion of responsible drinking," it states.
The comments emerged in a week in which Prime Minister Tony Blair said problems such as alcohol abuse could only be overcome by a partnership between individuals, the media, government and business. Although the link between cheap alcohol and binge drinking has been made in the past, it is believed to be the first time that a major drinks company has gone public with such a concern.
It marks a change in tack for Scottish & Newcastle. Previously it complained about bargain beer deals in supermarkets - but because of fears that value was being stripped out of the market (The Grocer, 3 June, p17). During the World Cup, all the major players sold boxes of beer on deep discount.
Retailers defended their corner. Asda, which offered two boxes of either Stella Artois, Strongbow, Carlsberg and Foster's for £16 during the World Cup, said its competitive price promotions were not restricted to the beer aisles. "We have a policy of everyday low prices across the store and that includes booze," said the spokesman, who added that the retailer prided itself on selling alcohol responsibly.
In its comments to the Commission, Scottish & Newcastle also highlights fears that drinkers are increasingly consuming cheap alcohol at home prior to crossing over into the on-trade for a night out.
Its case is illustrated by comparing the typical cost of a standard alcohol unit within the UK on-trade, at £1.02 per unit, and the typical cost in a multiple outlet at 30p per unit.
The beer producer also says it expects the demand for home consumption to increase with the advent of public smoking bans, now in Scotland and due in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. "Given this likely development, we believe that the emphasis on low price to drive footfall, placed on beer and cider, is an unwelcome feature in the grocery market."
Scottish & Newcastle's concerns were echoed in the Scottish Parliament this week, when Liberal Democrat MSP Donald Gorrie condemned supermarkets for selling bulk quantities at low prices.
He criticised stores in Scotland for selling beer cheaper than bottled water and said retailers were encouraging underage and binge drinking through cheap alcohol promotions.
Gorrie called on the Scottish Executive to end offers such as two-for-one on beer cases. Last year, the executive clamped down on alcohol promotions in pubs, which consequently led to calls from licensees to restrict similar promotions in supermarkets.