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North East health leaders call for urgent action on cheap alcohol

Government urged to increase alcohol duty ahead of budget

Government urged to increase alcohol duty ahead of budget

Posted 18/10/21

Health leaders from the North East and North Cumbria are calling for urgent action on cheap alcohol in the Chancellor’s autumn budget as part of the Government’s “levelling up” aims.

Dr Guy Pilkington and Amanda Healy, Chair and Vice Chair of the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System Population Health and Prevention Board, and Dr James Crosbie, consultant gastroenterologist and ICS Clinical Lead for Alcohol, joined other prominent health leads to write to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, calling for alcohol duty to be raised by 2% above inflation, following record levels of deaths from alcohol in 2020.

Alcohol is now the leading cause of death, ill-health and disability amongst 15-49-year-olds in England . The North East suffers disproportionately and the COVID pandemic exacerbated the situation, resulting in an estimated 855,000 people in the region drinking above recommended low risk levels. Alcohol-specific deaths in England hit record levels during 2020, with the worst rates in the country in the North East.

The Treasury’s own estimates indicate that it has lost around £1.3 billion in revenue every year due to duty changes since 2012.

Dr James Crosbie, a GP, consultant gastroenterologist and the Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System, said: “The NHS sees the fallout from alcohol every day and the pandemic has made this worse.

“With alcohol there are short and long-term risks, from at least seven types of cancer, to heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and mental health problems. The worry is that this is a ticking health time bomb.

“Much of the harm we see in the NHS is being fuelled by cheap alcohol consumed at home and bought from supermarkets and off licences. As health professionals working in the region worst affected by alcohol harms, we are urging the government to act now, to support our frontline services and most importantly, to save lives.”

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol Lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health, said: “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. It is scandal that people can drink a week’s worth of alcohol for the price of a coffee.”

A recent survey by Balance the North East Alcohol Programme found over half (51%) of adults in the North East supported an increase in alcohol taxation if the money raised went into supporting services affected by alcohol harm.

Balance and the Alcohol Health Alliance have expressed dismay at previous freezes on alcohol tax following years of duty cuts - but has called on the Chancellor to make health a priority in a major and ongoing review of the alcohol duty system .

Health campaigners and medical experts are also calling for a new, national evidence-based alcohol strategy from the Government to tackle price, promotion and availability of alcohol, as well as ensure access to alcohol treatment for those who need it. There has been no national alcohol strategy since 2012.

Dr Guy Pilkington, chair of the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System Prevention Board, said: “Alcohol often has a ruinous effect on families, health and communities. Tackling alcohol harm has to be part of this nation’s recovery from COVID. The evidence is clear – we urgently need action to tackle the ready availability of cheap alcohol which is driving the bulk of harm.”

Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “Alcohol is too cheap, too heavily advertised and too available. We need a new, national evidence-based alcohol strategy from the Government to tackle price, promotion and availability of alcohol, as well as ensure access to alcohol treatment for those who need it.”

Before the pandemic, hospital admissions in England linked to alcohol were already at record levels – around 1.3million per year .

Deaths linked to liver disease have risen by 400% in 40 years . Mortality rates from other common diseases are falling in the UK whereas liver disease deaths continue to rise, in contrast to most of Europe where they are falling .

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