Supermarkets are selling beer at a cheaper price than water, fuelling concern over their role in Britain's binge-drinking crisis.
Despite repeated public health warnings, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda now offer lager at just 22p a can - less per litre than their ownbrand-mineral water and cola, and cheap enough to allow someone to get drunk for just £1.
An investigation by The Mail on Sunday has uncovered a fierce alcohol price war between the major supermarkets.
Lager is now so cheap that the stores pay more in excise duties than they charge at the till.
When production costs and overheads are taken into account, experts estimate shops are losing up to 8p a can.
Public-health bodies, doctors and MPs were furious when confronted with the findings.
Don Shenker, director of policy for Alcohol Concern, said: "There is no justification for the sale of lager at such a ridiculously low price.
"The fact that it is cheaper than their own brand of cola per litre is appalling.
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"This sends entirely the wrong message to the young drinkers we are trying to steer away from alcohol abuse.
"They will think that if it's so cheap, it must be OK. We would urge the supermarkets to seriously review their pricing policy."
The last time lager was this cheap in pubs was 1975, but the supermarket price plunged to a new low last week following "tit-for-tat" measures between Tesco and Asda.
Last Monday, Asda slashed the price of Smart Price Lager to just 22p for a 440ml can following a similar move from Tesco.
Both stores now match Sainsbury's, whose Basics range has sold at 22p since June 2005.
This means that all three supermarkets are now selling cut-price lager, with an alcohol content of between two and three per cent, at 50p a litre - or just over 28p a pint.
By contrast, bottles of own-brand mineral water cost between 56p and 92p a litre, depending on the store.
Furthermore, a six-pack of 330ml cans of own brand cola costs between £1.11 and £1.29, or 56p to 65p a litre.
The situation may be about to deteriorate.
In an unprecedented move, Asda last week cleared their shelves of single cans and replaced them with multi-packs, forcing customers to buy in bulk.
The supermarket is the first of the major stores to introduce such a policy.
But critics fear that rival stores will be forced to follow suit to keep pace in a ferociously competitive market.
Sandra Gidley MP, public health spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Britain is in the midst of a binge-drinking crisis and prices like these do not help. The supermarkets constantly talk about their corporate social responsibility - maybe they should start practising it."
Experts are particularly concerned with the effect of low prices on children's alcohol consumption.
Last week, the Government admitted that the number of youngsters treated for alcohol abuse had rocketed by 40 per cent in just one year.
Figures obtained from the National Treatment Agency showed that children as young as ten are suffering illnesses usually present in ageing alcoholics and entering rehabilitation programmes in ever-increasing numbers.
A day after Asda slashed its beer prices, a report by Alcohol Concern found that supermarket alcohol is now so cheap that children could buy it using just their pocket money.
The Royal College of Physicians is so alarmed at the effect cheap alcohol is having on public health that it is forming an alliance with 21 other health groups to lobby the Government for a ten per cent rise in alcohol tax
Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College, said: "There is clear evidence that the drinks industry is not behaving responsibly on alcohol pricing. Beer, wine and spirits are not ordinary products.
"They are legal drugs and should not be sold as a loss leader."
Last month, a Competition Commission inquiry into supermarket dominance of the retail market found that stores were selling alcohol at a loss to entice customers through their doors.
That commission revealed that during the 2006 football World Cup, Britain's four biggest supermarkets sold £12.7million of beer, wine and spirits below cost price.
However, the figures were disputed by some supermarkets.
Evidence from Finland also suggestsa link between price and consumption. There, tax on alcohol was slashed by 40 per cent in 2003.
Since then, drink sales have soared 11 per cent.
The glut of cheap beer on supermarket shelves has sounded alarm bells at top levels.
Professor Mark Bellis, from the North West Public Health Observatory and the Government's leading adviser on alcohol, said: "Of 15-year-olds, nearly two-thirds have drunk in the past four weeks, and around one in seven of those drinkers consumed enough to vomit.
"The reality is that about 30 per cent of all 15-year-olds think it is OK to get drunk once a week.
"We need to tackle a youth culture in which drunkenness is commonplace-underage access to alcohol relatively easy and alternatives to drinking far too scarce."
Robin Touquet, a consultant in the accident and emergency department at St Mary's Hospital, London, said: "Alcohol is a drug. It's a toxin and in inexperienced drinkers it can be dangerous.
"It doesn't matter what the level of alcohol in the drink is, if you drink enough it's going to have exactly the same adverse effects that higher percentage drinks such as wine and spirits have."
The Department of Health has announced a review of drink supply rules which may mean new restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tougher action against stores that sell to under-18s.
A spokesman for Asda said: "We were reluctant to bring our price down but we are the price leader and we cannot afford to be exposed by our rivals. It is a competitive market and if someone is offering something at a ridiculous price, we have to match it."
A spokesman for Tesco declined to comment on specifics but released a statement that read: "In common with other retailers, we sell a range of beers at different prices to suit all budgets.
"Our research shows that most of the alcohol purchased by our customers is bought as part of the weekly family shop."
A spokesman for Sainsbury's said: "The vast majority of our customers who buy alcohol do so as part of their regular, large grocery shop.
"Our research shows that they consume it over a period of weeks and months or they buy it for a special occasion such as a party."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The Government has commissioned an independent national review of evidence on the relationship between alcohol, price, promotion and harm and following public consultation the need for regulatory change will, if necessary, be considered."
source: BBC News