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Stronger government action needed to tackle the epidemic of alcohol misuse, says new BMA report

A new hard-hitting report1 ‘Alcohol misuse: tackling the UK epidemic’ launched today (Thursday 21 February 2008) by the BMA calls on the government to show leadership and implement a full range of effective control policies that will reduce the burden of alcohol misuse.

“Recent governments have worked too closely with the alcohol industry and have pursued policies of deregulation and liberalisation regarding alcohol control” said BMA Head of Science and Ethics, Dr Vivienne Nathanson.  She added: “As doctors we see first hand how alcohol misuse destroys lives.  It causes family breakdowns, is a major factor in domestic violence, ruins job prospects, is often related to crime and disorderly behaviour and it kills. Alcohol misuse is related to over 60 medical conditions including heart and liver disease, diabetes, strokes and mental health problems. The government approach has led to increased consumption levels and alcohol-related problems and demonstrates a failure in the political drive to improve public health and order.

“Alcohol misuse not only costs lives it also costs the country many millions of pounds.  The NHS spends millions every year on treating and dealing with alcohol problems and the criminal justice system also spends similarly large amounts dealing with alcohol-related and drink-driving offences.  The BMA is very worried about alcohol consumption among young people, particularly young girls.  It is shocking that in Europe, the UK’s teenagers are most likely to be heavy drinkers.”

Key recommendations from the report include (a full list can be found on page seven of the report):

  • Higher taxes on alcoholic drinks and this increase should be proportionate to the amount of alcohol in the product.  
  • An end to irresponsible promotional activities like happy hours and two-for-one offers.
  • Standard labels should be displayed on all alcoholic products that clearly state alcohol units, recommended guidelines for consumption and a warning message advising that exceeding these guidelines may cause the individual and others harm.
  • The legal limit for the level of alcohol permitted while driving should be reduced from 80mg/100ml to 50mg/100ml throughout the UK.

Mass public awareness campaigns may be politically attractive and increase knowledge about alcohol misuse but they are very expensive and ultimately ineffective if unsupported by broad based policy, says the BMA report.  Targeted approaches are vital, including measures to reduce alcohol availability and thus consumption by young people and children.

BMA Chairman of Council, Dr Hamish Meldrum, said:

“Our report is making some tough recommendations but if the government is serious about tackling this issue this is what is needed.    Since 1997, taxes on wine and beer in the UK have only increased in line with inflation while taxes on spirits have not increased at all.   There is strong and consistent evidence that price increases result in reduced consumption and that increased opening hours are associated with increased alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems.  The government needs to act on this evidence.”

The Licensing Act 2003 now permits 24-hour opening in England and Wales and the BMA is dismayed that public health was not considered as one of the licensing objectives in the Act.

While most people in the UK drink sensibly and do not put their health at risk, there are significant numbers of men and women, across all ages, who are drinking significantly above the recommended guidelines2.  Although there has been a slight downward trend in recent years, the UK is still one of the heaviest alcohol consuming countries in Europe.

Alcohol consumption in the UK is not equally divided between genders and ethnic groups.  Men in the UK are more likely to drink heavily compared to women although the upward trend of alcohol consumption among young women between the ages of 16 and 24 is now the highest in Europe.   Only 9 per cent of the White British population are non-drinkers compared to 90 per cent among those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin or 48 per cent of those of Black African origin.

Preventing alcohol-related harm requires the accurate identification of individuals who misuse alcohol, but there is currently no system for routine screening and management of alcohol misuse in primary or secondary care settings in the UK.  The BMA report is calling for a more comprehensive system to identify patients at risk of alcohol misuse – this could be done via screening questionnaires when individuals visit their GP, or attend for a general hospital appointment or when they go to A&E.  The report is also calling for new ring-fenced funding for specialist alcohol treatment services so that patients can be seen as soon as possible.

Dr Meldrum, who is also a family doctor in Yorkshire, believes it is necessary that more is done to help people with alcohol problems:  “We need to identify patients who are misusing alcohol much earlier, but it doesn’t end there. There must be enough funding in place to refer patients who are at risk to specialist centres. As a GP it is disheartening to refer someone who has an alcohol problem for help but know that they’ll be waiting months to be seen by the appropriate specialised agency.  In that time not only does their health worsen but the effects on their family and work life can be catastrophic. 


Notes to editors:

1 To access the full report please click here.

2 The government guidelines advise that men should not drink more than 21 units of alcohol a week and women no more than 14 units per week.


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