The government has been urged not to abandon plans for minimum pricing of alcohol, by MPs and medical chiefs.
The fate of the policy is set to be announced by George Osborne in the budget after the home secretary, Theresa May, led a cabinet revolt against the plans.
Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who is a former GP and on the health select committee, pleaded with the government not to abandon minimum alcohol pricing, warning that the alternative was continued “carnage”.
“I feel devastated,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We know that whenever alcohol’s too cheap, people die.
“If the chancellor wants a message from me, it’s that we are already paying a huge amount to clean up the costs of this … This policy is about getting rid of the alcohol that’s being retailed around 22p a unit, that’s the alcohol that’s killing people and causing carnage.”
Fellow Conservative Tracey Crouch also expressed anger at the retreat and their concerns were echoed by the British Medical Association (BMA).
Asked what the BMA’s message would be to the prime minister, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the body’s director of professional activities, told the Today programme: “Be courageous: this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives, to save the country money. Both of those are very good deals for him.
“And it will get him the thanks of an awful lot of people. Not just doctors and nurses but also the families of problem drinkers who desperately want the government to do something to help them help the people they love to kick the habit and to save their lives.”
She said that having previously expressed his enthusiasm for the policy, for David Cameron to backtrack now would be “bizarre”.
The government has argued that introducing a minimum unit price would help reduce the levels of ill-health and crime related to alcohol and prevent practices such as “pre-loading”, where people binge-drink before going out.
Research has suggested a 45p minimum price could reduce drinking by 4.3%, potentially saving 2,000 lives within a decade. This was why the idea had such strong backing from the medical profession.
May, the former health secretary Andrew Lansley, and the education secretary, Michael Gove, have opposed the proposals on grounds that the impact on living standards would be unacceptable.
The former shadow home secretary, David Davis, claimed that evidence in Europe, where alcohol was cheaper but consumption lower, showed that culture was more important than price.
He described minimum pricing as a “blunderbuss” of a policy that would punish people indiscriminately. “There’s a drinking divide in Britain, a culture divide and you won’t solve it by this rather heavy handed mass effect,” he told the Today programme.
Welcoming the news, Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, made the same arguments. “Minimum unit pricing would penalise responsible drinkers and treat everyone who is looking for value in their shopping as a binge-drinker,” he said. “Evidence has also shown it will do little to tackle problem drinking.”
The shadow home office minister Diana Johnson accused the government of “weak leadership and weak government”.