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alcohol health alliance uk

Action on alcohol needed after 10-year gap

Sue Taylor

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh and Balance

Posted 22/03/22

Health campaigners in the North East are calling for evidence-based government action to tackle alcohol harms after it was revealed there has been a TEN-YEAR gap since any national Alcohol Strategy was launched.

Despite liver disease rising, a record year in 2020 for alcohol specific deaths with the worst rates in the North East and millions drinking at risky levels, this week marks ten years since the UK Government last published an Alcohol Strategy to address alcohol harms. The last 2012 government alcohol strategy was shelved in 2013.

Balance says people in regions like the North East have been failed by promises for measures to tackle binge drinking, cut alcohol fuelled violence and reduce the number of people drinking at harmful levels. Around 855,000 North East adults and 60% of male drinkers were drinking above low risk limits during 2020.

In the last decade successive governments have failed to implement an Alcohol Strategy and a new, evidence-based plan to tackle alcohol harm is urgent, especially with the impact of the pandemic:

• In England, only one in five dependent drinkers is in treatment
• Alcohol caused 16,800 cases of cancer in the UK in 2020
• Deaths from alcohol have reached the highest level in 20 years in the UK with the worst rates here in the North East

Sue Taylor Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, the North East Alcohol Programme said: “We are running out of time - ten years is too long to wait for a new strategy to tackle alcohol harm. The UK was already at crisis point with alcohol long before Covid, but the pandemic saw a tipping point, especially in regions like the North East where we suffer the worst harms.

“Cheap alcohol together with the terrible anxieties of Covid created a “perfect storm” which resulted in millions more drinking at risky levels, problems for families and heavy use turning into dependency. For ten years, we have seen a complete absence of leadership from the Government, and this has contributed to unprecedented alcohol harms – the time is ripe for the introduction of an evidence-based, comprehensive, national alcohol strategy, which tackles the affordability, availability and promotion of alcohol.”

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol Lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health said “Cheap, strong, supermarket alcohol is the blight of local communities across the North East and it is a scandal that people can buy a week’s worth of alcohol for less than the price of a takeaway coffee.

“At a time of pressure on public finances and increasing alcohol harms, the country cannot afford another missed opportunity for action. As with COVID, the bulk of alcohol harm falls on the most deprived people in our communities and this is particularly worrying in the North East where, even before COVID, we already suffered from the highest rates of alcohol-related death and illness in England.

“Alcohol duty has been frozen and cut significantly in recent years, costing the government around £1.3 billion in lost revenue in 2019/20 alone – that is enough to pay the salaries of over 41,000 nurses. As alcohol has got cheaper, the harm to individuals and communities has got worse. The time is long overdue for the Government to take a stance on this issue and to introduce the kind of evidence-based action we know reduces alcohol consumption and harms.”

Balance and the Alcohol Health Alliance are calling for a range of measures as part of a national strategy to tackle the alcohol crisis:

• A minimum price per unit of alcohol to tackle cheap, strong alcohol - following Scotland and Wales
• Health warnings and nutritional information on labels
• Restrictions on alcohol marketing to protect children and vulnerable people
• A fairer and healthier alcohol duty system
• Better access to specialist support for at-risk drinkers

A survey of people in the North East recognises that drinking is associated with many of the ills in society, including anti-social behaviour (79% associate this with alcohol); domestic abuse (72%); violent crime (68%); sexual assault (60%). Only 5% of survey respondents thought the Government was doing too much to tackle alcohol harm, while 51% thought it needed to do more.

Only 1 in 3 are aware that alcohol is linked to cancer; 1 in 4 that it increases the risk of heart disease (27%); 1 in 5 (19%) that it is associated with depression and anxiety; and fewer than 1 in 10 (7%) that it is linked to stroke. Only around one in eight adults can correctly identify 14 units as the weekly limit set by the UK Chief Medical Officers.

The Health Foundation published a new report in February to highlight that action to tackle harmful alcohol use in England has been particularly weak, arguing the government had backtracked on a number of lifesaving measures and citing “a striking lack of action for something is responsible for over 350,000 hospital admissions a year.”