An inadequate alcohol strategy in the face of a national crisis

First published 23 March, 2012, on Mail Online

Yvette Cooper gave a superb response to the Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement of the government’s alcohol strategy this morning in Parliament.

However Yvette was wrong in one respect; alcohol misuse IS a national crisis. It’s a crisis for women and children: Drinking adversely affects up to 1.3 million children in the UK with police estimating that 40% of all child abuse and 62% of domestic violence incidences are directly related to alcohol. In a survey last year, it was found that 4% of 12-13 year olds had themselves had drunk 28 units (roughly 3 bottles of wine) in the previous week.

It’s a crisis for the economy: the costs of misuse to the public purse are estimated to be between £20bn and £55bn annually. It is hard to quantify as we can count some of the direct health, crime, family breakdown, violence and lost working days, but the figures don’t include the lifetime care of a child born with foetal alcohol syndrome or the fallout from a fatal crash caused by a drunk driver.

And it’s a health crisis: 7% of all hospital admissions (about 1 million people) and 35% of A&E attendances are due to alcohol. Our casualty departments are overflowing with intoxicated adults and staff are being deployed in A&E who should be looking after the sick and elderly. Our liver disease in the UK has increased by a quarter to a half in the past 10 years whereas elsewhere in Europe it has been falling. Throat cancer is rising and alcohol is the prime suspect.

We desperately need a comprehensive alcohol strategy that will address all causes of alcohol misuse. What we have heard announced today is simply inadequate. Much as I applaud the proposal for minimum pricing (being able to get drunk for under a pound is ludicrous),the focus of the strategy seems to be on binge drinkers and alcoholics, who make up the minority of the people who are drinking too much.

In the report produced by 2020health, the Think Tank that I run, we highlighted the fact that a quarter of all adults – 8 million – are drinking too much alcohol. We called them the silent majority, hoping to loudly expose the problem! Many have no idea that their daily drinking (they don’t get drunk) will result in a health crisis later in life in the form of cancer, stroke or liver disease.

We have incredibly inadequate information, most people have no idea how many units there are in a drink and the tiny, low contrast unit labelling that industry sometimes puts on the back of cans and bottles doesn’t help as it is virtually invisible.

So how about GPs asking about alcohol as routinely as they do smoking, and offering an advice session known as a ‘Brief Intervention’ to those who are drinking to excess; how about having compulsory unit labelling, clearly on the front of bottles and cans, as we have with cigarette packets; how about a public health campaign educating us so that we all know two large glasses of wine a day can equal 6 units and that this increases risk of liver disease sevenfold, mouth cancer fivefold, stroke threefold and doubles the risk of breast cancer?

And how about  an urgent review of advertising of alcohol – we are still bombarded in this country with drink advertisements in ways that have been outlawed elsewhere in the world.

Whilst making city centres safer and promoting peaceful night-life is important, Durham and Nottingham have shown that this is already possible and achievable without any changes in the law. Many pubs already promote sensible drinking and are playing an important role in their communities.

Our alcohol crisis in the UK is a daily catastrophe. Libertarians will whinge about regulation and the unfairness of minimum pricing (as if supermarkets loss-leading on alcohol and charging us more for other goods is fair)  but as ever they want all the individual licence without the social responsibility.

The crisis speaks for itself – we are failing the vulnerable and allowing an unhealthy, under-productive society to persist. We needed a comprehensive alcohol strategy to transform England and we didn’t get one today.

About Julia Manning

Julia is a social pioneer, writer and campaigner. She studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991, later specialising in visual impairment and diabetes. During her career in optometry, she lectured at City University, was a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital and worked with Primary Care Trusts. She ran a domiciliary practice across south London and was a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. Julia formed 20/20Health in 2006. Becoming an expert in digital health solutions, she led on the NHS–USA Veterans’ Health Digital Health Exchange Programme and was co-founder of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum. Her research interests are now in harnessing digital to improve personal health, and she is a PhD candidate in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at UCL. She is also dedicated to creating a sustainable Whole School Wellbeing Community model for schools that builds relationships, discovers assets and develops life skills. She is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council. Julia has shared 2020health's research widely in the media (BBC News, ITV, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions & Victoria Derbyshire, BBC Radio 4 Today, PM and Woman's Hour, LBC) and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week.
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