The introduction of a minimum legal price per alcohol unit in England could lead to health improvements, according to a review by Public Health England (PHE).

The PHE report into alcohol control policies says that alcohol is now more affordable and people are drinking twice as much as they did 40 years ago. More adults are non-drinkers but there are still more than 10 million people in England drinking at levels that could damage their health, the report continues, adding that minimum unit pricing would be a “highly targeted” way to improve health.

PHE gave its backing to Scottish proposals that will see the introduction of a minimum unit price of 50p, although this is the subject of a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association. The UK Government rejected proposals to introduce a 45p minimum price per unit in 2013 but in 2014 a ban on the sale of alcohol below cost price was enforced in England and Wales.

The report said: “Policies that reduce the affordability of alcohol are the most effective, and cost-effective, approaches to prevention and health improvement. For example, an increase in taxation leads to an increase in government revenue and substantial health and social returns. According to Treasury forecasts, cuts in alcohol duty since 2013 are projected to have reduced income to the Exchequer by £5 billion over five years, reducing to £3.45 billion when consumption increases are considered. This does not include increases in societal and NHS costs.

“Implementing a minimum unit price (MUP) is a highly targeted measure which ensures tax increases are passed on to the consumer and improves the health of the heaviest drinkers. These people are experiencing the greatest amount of harm.”

The proposed Scottish legislation will impact on the price of alcohol currently sold below the threshold with Nielsen data identifying that spirits would be the most impacted with 69% of volume currently sold below the 50p per unit threshold, followed by beer (67%), cider (51%) and wine (3.5%).

However, Dave Roberts of industry group the Alcohol Information Partnership challenged the PHE report’s claims.

He said: ”PHE are claiming that we are now drinking ‘twice as much’ as we did 40 years ago. In fact in the UK we drink almost exactly the same amount today as we did in 1976 (HMRC) and less than we did 10 years ago. In the last decade alcohol consumption has fallen by 18%.

“On average, 76% of adults (84% of women and 68% of men) do not exceed low risk guidelines. Minimum Unit Pricing has the potential to penalise moderate and responsible drinkers and increase the cost of enjoying a convivial drink without tackling serious misuse.”