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The Swords Are Out: On Cheap Alcohol

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009 The Swords Are Out: On Cheap Alcohol

Both the Telegraph (John Swaine) and the BBC news (16 03 09) are covering the unfolding problem of alcohol misuse in the UK. More particularly, what is the best way forward in terms of the growing amount of alcohol consumption and the finacial cost to the NHS.

According to the BBC, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given a lukewarm response to proposals for minimum prices for alcohol. Yet alas, the Government’s top medical adviser Sir Liam Donaldson has warned that “cheap alcohol is killing us as never before”, as he unveils his proposals for a minimum price for alcohol.

Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, suggested that a minimum price of 50p per unit be set in an attempt to tackle the country’s drinking problem, thus taking the price of an average six pack of lager to £6.00.

It is understood that Gordon Brown has said that he did not want to impose additional burdens on the majority, who were “moderate” drinkers.

In his annual report on the state of the nation’s health, Sir Liam wrote: “Quite simply, England is drinking far too much. England has an alcohol problem.

“Alcohol is harming society. Alcohol is not simply a problem for the minority who are dependent on it – it is a problem for everybody.”

He said that plan could see pubs and restaurants ordered to charge £1 per unit, with supermarkets and off licences allowed a lower minimum of 40 or 50p. Essentially this means that some drinks could in effect double in price.

Moreover, Sir Liam said that radical measures were necessary to cope with problems resulting from a “deeply ingrained” drinking culture, which cost the NHS an estimated £2.7 billion a year.

He said that since 1970, “alcohol consumption has fallen in many European countries but has increased by 40 per cent in England”, noting that the average yearly intake per adult is now the equivalent of 120 bottles of wine.

In addition Sir Liam disagrees with the prime minister’s claim that heavy drinkers represented a minority.

He said: “I think these strong actions in public health are always controversial.

“The report has only just come out, and it needs to be debated and considered.”

More specifically, the chief medical officer has said that the evidence had shown that price and access were key determinants of drinking habits.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that that the policy could save more than £1 billion per year and could prevent almost 3,400 deaths per year.

“It would reduce the annual number of crimes by almost 46,000 and hospital admissions by nearly 100,000,” Sir Liam wrote. “It would significantly reduce absenteeism and unemployment.”

The proposals have received a warm reception from the medical profession, ministers and the drinks industry however, have reacted frostily.

The Prime Minister, speaking at a press conference at at 10 Downing Street on Monday says “We don’t want the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a minority.”

The Government also warned that any increase in alcohol duty would be unpopular at a time when many people were struggling with their finances as a result of the recession.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Any decisions we make will take into account their wider economic impact during this difficult time.”

The Conservatives accused ministers of sending out mixed messages.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said: “The Government’s response to this report is another example of Labour’s confusion and incoherence.

“If there was an ounce of leadership from Labour on this issue there would be no need for Liam Donaldson to try his shock tactics to kick-start government policy.”

Sir Liam’s report said a 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol would mean a standard bottle of wine could not be sold for less than £4.50, a two litre bottle of cider for £5.50, and the average six pack of lager for £6.00.

The Chief Medical Officer estimated the measure would add around £1 a month to the drinks bill of a moderate drinker - but more for those heavy drinkers who were at risk.

He also argues it was important to recognise the concept of what he calls “passive drinking” - the damage done to innocent parties from others boozing.

“England has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. “The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.

The Conservatives say it is important to deal with people’s attitudes to drinking, not just supply and price, while the Liberal Democrats support putting an end to “pocket-money priced” alcohol.

David Poley, the chief executive of the Portman Group, which promotes sensible drinking, urged the Government to reject an alcohol price increase, saying: “This would have a marginal effect on harmful drinkers but force hard-working families to pay more for a drink.”

Yet among other leading doctors, Prof Ian Gilmore, the President of the Royal College of Physicians, said he would be “extremely supportive” of the proposals

Prof Gilmore, a liver specialist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said: “All the evidence shows that price is one of the most important drivers of alcohol consumption and the amount of harm done.

“This could have a huge impact on underage drinkers, and heavy drinkers and it would have a far more minimal impact on those who drink in moderation.”

The NHS bill for alcohol abuse is an estimated £2.7bn a year.

The most recent figures show hospital admissions linked to alcohol use have more than doubled in England since 1995.

The Scottish Government has already proposed minimum pricing.

Earlier this month SNP ministers put forward the suggestion to stop alcohol being sold a cut-price offers.

If the plans were adopted, Scotland will become the first country in Europe to take such a measure.

Both Wales and Northern Ireland have also expressed an interest in minimum pricing, while ministers in England have said they would not rule it out in the long-term.

Last year, research published by Sheffield University - and commissioned by the Department of Health - concluded increasing the price of alcohol would be one of the most effective measures to tackle alcohol abuse.

Petra Meier, one of the Sheffield team, said a 50p minimum price would lead to a cut of 7% in alcohol consumption across the board, and 10% cut among heavy drinkers.

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