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alcohol health alliance uk

Conference calls for alcohol harm to be put on the political agenda

Posted 22/01/15

The alcohol industry’s fear of losing customers is why it opposes a minimum unit price, according to a leading liver specialist.

Speaking at a high profile UK-wide conference hosted by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, Professor Nick Sheron accused the alcohol industry of being driven by shareholder value instead of public health and branded liver disease a “corporate disease”.

He said: “MUP is the most exquisitely targeted alcohol policy you could possibly hope to find. It only impacts on people with a drink problem. It has no impact whatsoever on low risk drinkers. And what did the drinks industry do? It built its campaign against MUP on the effects that it would have on low risk drinkers, saying it would have a devastating impact on the low risk drinkers.”

The academic hepatologist at the University of Southampton, who works at a national and European level campaigning for strategies to turn the rising tide of liver and alcohol deaths, was addressing North East commissioners, clinicians and managers from a variety of NHS settings at The Alcohol Challenge conference in Durham.

As the effects of alcohol continue to put significant strain on the NHS, the event focused on how alcohol harm can be reduced and possible solutions to prevent alcohol-related conditions placing further pressures on hospital services in future.

During his keynote speech, Prof Sheron called on Government support for alcohol policies that control price and availability – such as a minimum unit price (MUP), which would mean that there is a baseline price for alcohol per unit, below which it couldn’t be sold.

He said: “Why did the drinks industry say it wanted policy that is targeted at heavy drinkers when clearly it doesn’t want a policy that targets heavy drinkers? In fact, a policy targeted at heavy drinkers is the absolute opposite of what it wants. It will move heaven and earth to prevent MUP being initiated.

“The drinks industry is reliant, 70% of its shareholder value comes from people who are drinking too much and a third of its shareholder value comes from people who are drinking far too much. Quite simply, it’s not prepared to lose that market share.

“Not only does the drinks industry oppose a policy that would be phenomenally effective and heavily targeted, it’s entirely possible for it to change its business model and not cause the deaths of people on a huge scale which is currently what it is doing.”

Other speakers included Dr Mark Hudson (Clinical Lead for Hepatology at the Freeman Hospital), Dr Steve Masson (Consultant Hepatologist at the Freeman Hospital), Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch (Alcohol and Public Health Research at Teesside University), Gill O’Neill (Consultant in Public Health at Durham County Council), Dr Marc Herscowitz (GP in Gateshead), Iain Armstrong (Public Health England) and Dr Linda Harris (Chief Executive of Spectrum Community Health).

The key themes discussed at the conference - organised by Balance, Public Health England and Northern England Strategic Clinical Networks - focused on evidence-based approaches such as early intervention and screening programmes for those with alcohol-related conditions, sharing evidence and best practice and the need for integrated multi-disciplinary specialised alcohol teams.

Colin Shevills, Director at Balance, said: “It’s great to have people coming from outside the region to share how they are tackling these problems as well as hearing about all the great work that is already taking place here in the North East.

“The level of harm to the liver is increasing here in the UK at an unprecedented rate in Europe with the exception of Finland - if that doesn’t make alcohol a priority, I don’t know what does.

“The harm alcohol causes is clear and the pressures it places on our healthcare system is plain to see. We need to work together to try and alleviate these by helping people understand the level of the problem and making a clear case for measures such as MUP - which won’t have an impact on those who drink within the recommended limits.

“We need to make demands of Government and political parties both before the election and after. We need to call on them to stop listening to the industry and start listening to the public.”