LONDON (Reuters) - Senior doctors and anti-alcohol campaigners on Wednesday accused the British government of dropping plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol because of intense lobbying from the drinks industry.
The Department of Health strongly rejected the criticism, saying minimum alcohol pricing remained an option and that officials had held a similar number of meetings with health campaigners or charities.
The government said in July that it was not ready to pursue plans previously endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron to limit how cheaply alcohol could be sold because it had not seen enough evidence that such steps would deter excessive drinking.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Wednesday, 21 health experts criticized the decision, quoting an investigation by the British Medical Journal which showed officials had held frequent meetings with drinks industry representatives.
"We call on Government to stop dancing to the tune of the drinks industry and prioritize public health," wrote the group, led by Ian Gilmore, a special adviser on alcohol to the Royal College of Physicians.
A move last year to drop plans introducing graphic health warnings on cigarette packages drew similar criticism about lobbyists' influence on the government, and in November the decision was overturned.
The British Medical Journal published data released under a freedom of information request showing that 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.
"To insinuate routine meetings between departmental officials and industry representatives amounted to an improper relationship with the drinks industry is completely unfounded," a spokesman said.
New legislation to regulate lobbying is currently being debated in parliament.
(Reporting by William James; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)