MINISTERS have defended controversial plans to ban cheap deals on booze, insisting they would save hundreds of lives every year.

The coalition is proposing a minimum alcohol price of 45p per unit, and an end to multi-buy offers at supermarkets and off-licences. Officials estimate the move will save the taxpayer millions of pounds a year by cutting crime and health problems linked to binge drinking.

But the drinks industry warned that responsible consumers would suffer, with wine and spirits prices being pushed up. They also suggested the move would break EU law, as imports would be hit by price hikes.

Unveiling the package of measures being put out for consultation, Home Office minister Damian Green said: "The evidence is clear - the availability of cheap alcohol contributes to harmful levels of drinking. It can't be right that it is possible to purchase a can of beer for as little as 20p."

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Too many of us have seen city centres on a Friday and Saturday night often become a vision of hell. A lot of this is fuelled by very cheap, very strong alcohol.

"The point of having a minimum unit price rather than, say, increasing taxation, is that you can target ... the shops that do deliberately sell very strong drink very cheaply. It is just a fact of economics and indeed of life that if you put the price of a particular product up, demand for it goes down."

The Government believes imposing a 45p minimum unit price will reduce total alcohol consumption by 3.3%, and cut the number of crimes by 5,000 per year and hospital admissions by 24,000. There will be 700 fewer alcohol-linked deaths annually, according to the predictions.

The department's impact assessment suggests moderate drinkers will spend an extra £7 per year as a result of the plans, while harmful drinkers - defined as more than 50 units per week for men and 35 for women - would need to find an extra £118.

The public purse will lose around £200 million in duty due to falling sales and there would be a £500,000 bill for enforcing the rules, plus up to £16.6 million in "transitional" costs for the industry. But it estimates the health benefits are worth more than £400 million annually and the reduction in crime nearly £13 million.

The consultation says banning "two-for-one" and other multi-buy offers "would be expected to result in an overall reduction in alcohol consumption and its related harms" - but admits there is not yet enough evidence to assess benefits properly.

© Press Association 2012