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

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

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


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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