PLANS to introduce minimum alcohol pricing in Wales must include more investment in support for people with drinking problems, AMs have said.

The general principles of the bill, which would mean alcoholic drinks cannot be sold at less than a specified price per unit in an effort to cut the number of people dying as a result of excessive drinking, were approved in the Assembly today.

But opponents have said it will only lead to heavy drinkers spending more, or turning to drugs as an alternative.

Speaking in the Assembly, health secretary Vaughan Gething said: "This is not a bill that seeks to punish drinkers by making alcohol punitively expensive.

"This bill takes a sensible and targeted approach to a very real and evident problem in Wales today. Like so many others western countries, we have a problem with cheap, strong and readily available alcohol."

But he conceded it would not be a "silver bullet", and said it would only be effective if introduced alongside other ways of cutting problem drinking.

Newport East AM John Griffiths said, while he supported the principle of the bill, it was important to ensure support services were in place in time for its introduction.

"It will be very important that we ensure that those services are adequate to deal with what may well be an increased demand for the services if this legislation is, as I hope it will be, implemented," he said.

But he added he believed the rationale behind the bill was "very strong indeed".

"If we increase the price of that cheap, strong alcohol we will do something significant and important to address these problems and issues," he said.

Plaid Cymru's Rhun ap Iorwerth agreed, saying: "We would need assurances that further resources would be invested in helping those users, helping them to battle their alcohol misuse and the impact that that has on their families, their children.

"We cannot look at introducing a financial incentive to encourage people to drink less without considering the whole range of support services that need to be developed and invested in."

He added the Welsh Government should consider introducing a levy through which some of the extra profits retailers would be making as a result of the increased prices could be invested in support services.

Conservative Angela Burns also backed the bill, but also warned support networks must be in place.

"Alcohol in itself is not a problem," she said. "It is perfectly legitimate, and it is perfectly well-used by a great many people throughout the world.

"The issue is that some people have a problem with how they deal with alcohol, and we need to be laser-like in our focus as to how we can support those people."

But Ukip Wales leader Neil Hamilton opposed the bill, saying it "targets the many without actually benefitting the few who drink irresponsibly".

"Whereas most people like a drink and they drink responsibly, there is a very small minority that cause problems for themselves and for the rest of society," he said. "Nobody doubts the ill effects of excessive drinking, but the question is whether a measure of this kind is likely to be effective in targeting those people."

And Independent North Wales AM Mandy Jones branded the bill "rather misguided".

The level the minimum price would be set at is yet to be announced, but research has shown a 50p per unit minimum would mean some of the strongest, and currently cheapest, drinks such as so-called 'white cider', would become far more expensive.

AMs voted 46 to seven to approve the general principles of the bill, which will now pass to the next stage of the legislative process.

An amendment by Mr Hamilton claiming the bill would "not produce the desired positive health outcomes" and "could have a detrimental impact on vulnerable sections of our communities" was defeated by 36 votes to five, with 13 abstentions.