Why we need action to reduce alcohol-related harm

Published on Wednesday, 09 June 2010 01:00
Written by Professor Anne Ludbrook

Professor Anne Ludbrook outlines the importance of making alcohol less affordable if we are to save thousands of lives each year

Around one in four men and women are currently drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol that are causing, or have the potential to cause, physical and mental damage. To help create an environment that supports lower-risk drinking, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has published guidance outlining the most effective measures that can be taken to lower the risks of alcohol-related harm. (www.nice.org.uk/PH24)


As NICE's Professor Mike Kelly says, "alcohol misuse is a major public health concern which kills thousands of people every year and causes a multitude of physical, behavioural and mental health problems. What's more, it costs the NHS over £2 billion annually to treat the chronic and acute affects of alcohol - this is money that could be spent elsewhere to treat conditions that are not so easily preventable."


As well as the detrimental health consequences, there are a number of other knock-on effects that alcohol misuse can have, such as on antisocial behaviour, crime, relationship breakdown and work absenteeism.


So how do we go about improving the situation?  Based on the international evidence, it is clear that policy change is the best way to transform the country's unhealthy relationship with alcohol and prevent people from getting to the stage where they are drinking worryingly large amounts. The new NICE guidance looks at a number of ways that the government can consider doing this, from reducing the affordability and availability of alcohol, to looking at how advertising affects children and young people.


Alcohol is much more affordable now than it ever has been - and the price people pay does not reflect the cost of the health and social harms that arise. When it is sold at a very low price, people often buy and then consume more than they otherwise would have done. It is a dangerous pattern which many people have unknowingly fallen into.


There is a strong body of evidence from around the world to show that making alcohol less affordable will reduce its consumption. This will in turn improve the overall health of the population.


NICE's recommendation to introduce a minimum price per alcohol unit is a very targeted measure as it is most likely to affect heavy drinkers who typically purchase ‘cheaper' alcohol products. NICE is not recommending a particular minimum price but the evidence shows that introducing a minimum price of 50p, for example, would reduce consumption amongst harmful drinkers by 10.3%, while moderate drinkers would reduce their consumption by 3.8%.  It is also not true to say that a minimum price per unit would target poorer people unfairly, unless they are already drinking too much.  Minimum pricing at 50p would increase the annual alcohol bill of a moderate drinker by just £13 per year, while someone drinking dangerously would pay £200 per year more.


Although many of us are able to enjoy alcohol responsibly, we are all affected by those that do not or cannot; for example by the level of disorder you see in our town centres on Friday and Saturday nights, or the associated costs to the NHS and other public services, as well as those who may be quietly drinking themselves into health harms at home. It is a national problem which we all need to face up to.


It is NICE's job to improve the health of the population, and there is no doubt that if these measures are taken forward, that they will significantly decrease alcohol consumption and thereby offset some of the serious social, economic and physical health problems that arise as a consequence of drinking too much.


For more information about the NICE public health guidance 24 on "Alcohol-use disorders: preventing the development of hazardous and harmful drinking", visit www.nice.org.uk/PH24.

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