LONDON (Reuters) - The British government, trying to cut the cost to society of excessive drinking, will ban the sale of drinks at a loss but has abandoned plans to introduce a minimum alcohol price, ministers said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron said in March 2012 that a minimum price was needed to tackle binge drinking, cut crime and reduce health problems. He said the government was committed to ending a situation where some beer was cheaper than water.
However, the drinks industry opposed the move, saying price controls would penalise millions of retailers and consumers while doing little to tackle the causes of alcohol abuse.
"We do not have enough concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms associated with problem drinking," junior Home Office minister Jeremy Browne told parliament.
The move follows hard on the heels of a decision not to ban branded cigarette packaging, which the opposition Labour party has linked to a tobacco lobbyist close to Cameron. Labour suggested the alcohol policy had also been influenced by lobbyists.
"Do I detect traces of lobbying on the minister's breath?" Labour Home Office spokeswoman Diana Johnson asked in parliament. "After a two-year Whitehall farce over their alcohol strategy, we've ended up exactly where we started."
Instead of introducing a minimum price for each unit of alcohol, the government will now seek to ban "loss leader" deals, where shops sell drinks below cost price to attract customers.
It ruled out a ban on multi-buy deals - for example, where two bottles of wine costing 7 pounds can be bought together for 10 pounds.
Cameron is already embroiled in a scandal over whether lobbyists have successfully influenced his government's policy to give tobacco companies an easier ride.
The issue is particularly awkward for Cameron because his chief election strategist Lynton Crosby has advised the tobacco industry.
Labour has called for an investigation into Crosby's role and whether lobbying firms helped to alter government policy on alcohol and tobacco.
Cameron's spokesman has repeatedly said that Crosby has never lobbied government, but has refused to say whether the pair discussed alcohol pricing or cigarette packaging.
Alcohol is one of Britain's biggest health problems, responsible for 1.2 million hospital admissions in 2012, the government said. It has been linked to heightened risk of liver damage, cancer, stroke and heart conditions.
Announcing his minimum pricing plans last year, Cameron said he realised it would not be popular with everyone, but that "We can't go on like this".
"The responsibility of being in government isn't always about doing the popular thing. It's about doing the right thing," he said in a foreword to the government's alcohol policy strategy in 2012.
($1 = 0.6613 British pounds)
Reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Kevin Liffey