Tackling our national alcohol problem

An article published today in The Lancet, highlights our growing problem with alcohol in the UK.  Data presented in this article shows that whereas the liver death rate in the EU as a whole has been falling consistently over the past 3 decades, in the UK it has been steadily rising.  Since alcohol is responsible for around 80% of liver disease deaths this is a good indication of the failure of our alcohol policy to date.

Those who misuse alcohol can be largely divided into 3 groups:

  1. Dependent drinkers, for whom alcohol is used like a drug
  2. Binge drinkers, who drink to high levels occasionally for entertainment
  3. Hazardous and harmful drinkers who consistently drink above the recommended limits and although not addicted will be building up potential health problems for the future

Different strategies are needed for these different groups, but for all groups we need to consider several different angles:

  • what is the cause of alcohol misuse? – depression/stress/boredom?
  • how can we prevent alcohol misuse? – cost/advertising/education?
  • what screening, advice and treatments are and should be available?

Whilst changes to the minimum price of alcohol have been suggested and much discussed this is not the whole issue.  There is also a need for increased screening and referral and for this an increased investment in recovery programmes is needed.

The facts are clearly laid out in Alcohol Concern’s recent publication:

  • over 10million adults in England drink more than the recommended limits
  • alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking
  • The cost to the NHS of alcohol related health problems is £2.7 billion every year and is expected to rise

The new GP consortia, together with their health and wellbeing boards need to consider what additional support is needed to address our national alcohol problem. Alcohol must be made a priority, and not only those who drink to very high levels and are already incurring large costs to the NHS and society.  A focus on interventions for those at the lower ends of the alcohol misuse spectrum is needed now, to prevent high health costs in the future.


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