On responsible drinking

(by peter)

There has been a spate of anti-alcohol headlines in recent weeks.

The first wave was caused by a paper predicting that alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK could rise to 1.5 million per year by 2015 and cost the NHS £3.7 billion annually (up from an estimated current annual cost of £2.7 billion).

Then today came the reports that, over the next 20 years, ‘Up to 250,000 may be killed by alcohol’ (The Independent) if government does not take tougher action to curb excessive drinking.

In this context, we thought it would be interesting to reprint an email we received from Alcohol In Moderation (AIM), an independent body specialising in responsible drinking, which questions the basis of the first report and introduces some interesting data.

However, in the midst of all of this, we are left clutching our heads in exasperation. (See my earlier blog on this subject, following the recent launch of the book Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.)

This is an important debate.

The UK needs to have a responsible, enlightened and rigorous policy on alcohol, to prevent its abuse as well as promote its responsible use.

This would help save – and make – the country money by reducing policing and NHS costs as well as maximising tax revenue and fostering an important industry.

It would also help Britons enjoy their alcohol responsibly.

Unfortunately, however, this debate is rarely free of self-interest and bombastic rhetoric. Both sides – the anti-alcohol brigade as well as the drinks industry – all too often seem content to disregard the opportunities for working together to solve this problem and instead hurl headline-grabbing sound-bites at each other via the media.

Meanwhile, the government is pushing ahead for a ban on below-cost alcohol sales, with ‘cost’ defined as the price of duty plus VAT.

This is, as many have pointed out, a largely meaningless exercise given it will affect very few alcohol purchases as the bar is set so low.

We continue to see the way forward as in-depth and widespread education on the potential dangers and benefits of alcohol, twinned with robustly enforced policy (eg drink-driving campaigns backed up by properly enforced random breath testing) and sensible pricing limits (eg no ‘drink all you can handle’ offers, as well as a move to ban low-cost selling of high-strength alcohol).

Alcohol plays an important role in our society, whether we like it or not. The futility of blanket prohibition has already been proven; we need to find a way to legislate for its responsible consumption in our country.

Having a responsible debate seems the best way to start.

EMAIL from Alcohol in Moderation (AIM), 17th February 2011:

Making alcohol a health priority’: report by Alcohol Concern

A position paper published by Alcohol Concern suggests that Alcohol-related hospital admissions may rise to 1.5 million a year by 2015 if further investment in alcohol is not prioritised. The charity states that the cost of alcohol to the NHS will rise to £3.7 billion per year if investment in the NHS for alcohol services does not double.

The Alcohol Concern press release states: “If the 100% rate of increase continues, it will waste billions of pounds to the NHS…The campaign group has called for Government to invest in alcohol health workers in every hospital, A&E unit and GP practice. This will save the NHS £3 for every £1 spent, according to the report, as well as reduce the current level of 15,000 alcohol-related deaths per year and 1.2m incidents of violent crime.”

The report addresses many important issues regarding alcohol misuse in the UK and what should be done to address alcohol dependent drinkers and those admitted to hospital for alcohol related injuries and treatment.

However the statistics used in the paper, suggest that alcohol consumption and alcohol related deaths are increasing rapidly in the UK, contrary to Government and NHS statistics in recent years.

Average per capita consumption UK

According to The ONS and HM customs and Exercise: .From 1990, the average amount drunk per capita each year increased from 9.8 litres of pure alcohol per head to a peak of 11.6 litres in 2004, which has since declined to 10.3 litres in 2009. The long term rise in consumption since the 1950’s peaked in 2004/5 and has since fallen by 9%.  Drinking: adults’ behaviour and knowledge in 2009 estimates a weekly average of consumption of 15.6 units for men and  9.5 units for women in 2009.

Percentage of UK population exceeding guidelines

A change in methodology used by the ONS in 2006 means that direct comparisons cannot be made between data pre- and post-2006]

Following an increase between 1998 and 2000, there has been a decline since 2002 in the proportion of both men drinking on average more than 21 units a week and women drinking more than 14 units.The proportion of men drinking more than 21 units a week on average fell from 29% in 2000 to 23% in 2006. This trend seems to be continuing under the revised methodology with a fall from 31% in 2006 to 27% in 2008.The proportion of women drinking more than 14 units a week fell from 17% in 2000 to 12% in 2006. Under the revised methodology, this changed to 20% in 2006 and 19% in 2008.

Drinking amongst those underage

Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use amongst Young People in England in 2008, produced by the NHS Information Centre shows that  The proportion of pupils who have never had an alcoholic drink has increased from 39% in 2003 to 48% in 2008.

Frequency of drinking

The recent Health Survey for England findings suggest that most adults do not drink that frequently. 22% of men and 12% of women drank on five or more days in the last week; In the same period, 28% of men and 44% of women did not drink at all.

Alcohol related deaths

Reversing a trend of 20 years, alcohol-related deaths fell to 8,664 in 2009, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS). The figures reverse annual increases in deaths since the early 1990s, when 4,023 alcohol related deaths were recorded in 1992, according to the ONS on the 27th January 2011.

Awareness of the effect of drinking

People appeared to be most aware of the effect of drinking on the risk of accidents or liver disease (96 per cent were aware and only 2 per cent said they did not know if drinking had any effect). Ninety one per cent were aware of the effect of drinking on the risk of alcohol poisoning, with only 4 per cent saying they did not know if there was any effect.