LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown has rejected a recommendation from Britain's chief medical officer that the government should bring in minimum prices for alcohol in an attempt to cut excessive drinking.
Liam Donaldson said the government should set a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, which would nearly double the price of some discount beer and wine.
Donaldson said the plans would mean a bottle of wine could not be sold for less than 4.50 pounds, a bottle of whisky for less than 14 pounds and a six pack of 500 ml cans of lager for less than 6 pounds.
However, Brown said he did not want to punish the majority for the actions of the few.
"It is right for society to bear down on, and deal with, anti-social behaviour that is associated with drinking," he told a news conference.
"But ... it is also right that we do not want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more, or suffer, as a result of the excesses of a small minority."
Donaldson's advice, which is not binding on the government, follows consistent evidence that Britain has a worsening problem with teenage drunkenness and with excessive drinking in general.
"Quite simply, England is drinking far too much. Alcohol is not simply a problem for the minority who are dependent on it -- it is a problem for everybody," he said in his annual report.
"There is a clear relationship between price and consumption of alcohol. Price increases generally reduce heavy drinkers' consumption by a greater proportion than they reduce moderate drinkers' consumption."
The report said such a move would reduce the annual number of crimes by 46,000 and hospital admissions by 100,000 while cutting absenteeism from work. This would save 1 billion pounds a year.
Latest government statistics show that nearly 40 percent of men and a quarter of women exceed the recommended daily limit on alcohol consumption, while young people and teenagers are consuming ever more quantities of high-alcohol "alcopops."
Scotland, which has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world, said last month it was looking into setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol and Donaldson's recommendations would follow much the same approach.
The Department of Health said it was taking action to deal with very cheap alcohol, but said this had to be "appropriate, fair and effective."
Britain has the 10th highest alcohol consumption in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, with the equivalent of nearly 12 litres of pure alcohol consumed by each member of the population per year.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Steve Addison)