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* Minimum price would avert 860 alcohol deaths a year
* Study uses model based on price of 45 pence per unit
* Doctors' group says government should act on evidence
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Setting a minimum alcohol price of 45 pence ($0.73) a unit in Britain would cut deaths and hospital time among heavy drinkers yet have virtually no adverse impact on the pockets of moderate drinkers, researchers said on Monday.
In a study which calls into question a government decision last year to drop plans to set a minimum price for alcohol, researchers found it would have the greatest effect on the 5 percent of people who drink at rates classified as "harmful".
Petra Meier of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, who worked on the study, said the overall impact of a minimum price on moderate drinkers would be very small, while the large impact on harmful drinkers - men who drink more than 50 units a week and women who drink more than 35 - would lead to significantly lower rates of illness and premature death.
"Policy-makers need to balance larger reductions in consumption by harmful drinkers on a low income against the large health gains that could be experienced in this group from reductions in alcohol-related illness and death," said John Holmes of Sheffield University, who led the study.
A unit is defined as 10 millilitres (ml) of pure alcohol. There are roughly two units in a pint of beer, lager or cider, nine to 10 in a bottle of wine and one in a 25ml spirit shot.
Government officials said when they dropped minimum pricing plans in July they had not seen enough evidence that such a move would deter excessive drinking.
But senior doctors last month accused Prime Minister David Cameron's government of "dancing to the tune of the drinks industry" and failing to prioritise public health in its decision to back away from minimum pricing.
The doctors cited data published in the British Medical Journal obtained by a freedom of information request showing the government had met with the drinks industry 130 times between 2010 and 2013. This included two meetings after the end of a public consultation on minimum pricing, the journal said.
Monday's research, published in The Lancet medical journal, used mathematical models to analyse how consumers of different income levels would change their drinking habits and spending if a minimum alcohol price of 45 pence a unit were introduced.
It found that three quarters of the total reduction in alcohol consumption would be among harmful drinkers - with a predicted fall in alcohol-related deaths of 860 a year and in hospital admissions of 29,900 a year.
According to latest data, from 2012, hospitals in England alone admitted 200,900 cases where the main reason for ill-health was an alcohol-related condition.
The study found moderate drinkers in the lowest income group were predicted to cut their drinking by around 3·8 units a year - or around 2 pints of beer - meaning they would spend only around 4 pence per year more on alcohol.
Across the entire population, each year moderate drinkers would have 1.6 fewer units - about a pint of beer - and spend around 78 pence more on alcohol.
Commenting on the findings, Ian Gilmore, the Royal College of Physicians' advisor on alcohol and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said it showed mininum alcohol pricing would be an evidence-based policy "exquisitely targeted at those, and those around them, who are currently suffering harm".
"It is time for government to stop listening to the vested interests of the drinks industry and act," he said. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)