Richard Heller: We must combat the deluge of drink that is fuelling an alcohol epidemic

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FOR the last 30 years, governments of all parties have tried to persuade the British people to drink less, culminating with MPs asserting that drinkers should give themselves two alcohol-free days a week.

They failed. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, alcohol consumption by over-15s in the United Kingdom has risen by nine per cent since 1980.

In almost every other major country it has fallen, often dramatically.

Alcohol abuse is far and away Britain’s biggest drug problem. Recently, the Health and Social Care Information Centre put the annual cost of alcohol-related harm to the NHS in England at £2.7bn.

For the nation, this cost was supplemented by the impacts of alcohol-related anti-social behaviour and crime, family stress and break-up, by lost output and taxation from alcohol-related illness, accidents and premature death, and by lost education for the one-in-five children who drink regularly – and who are getting younger.

In Leeds alone, a recent estimate put the economic and social costs of alcohol-related problems at over £400m (more than double Leeds’ council spending on children’s services this year). On average, the city’s hospitals admit a new alcohol victim every hour.

Alcohol represents a major policy failure. Governments have been fitfully tough on drinkers but very laidback towards those who make and sell drink. They have largely let the industry regulate itself. Governments have watched passively as alcohol has been sold more and more freely, in forms more and more attractive to younger and teenage drinkers – and, above all, more and more cheaply.

Self-regulation can be summed up in the vapid exhortation – “use this product responsibly” in alcohol advertising or packaging. It suits the industry – and it is daft, because virtually every drinker believes that he or she drinks responsibly.

The Scots, with their devolved government, are meeting their alcohol crisis with a bold policy: minimum pricing.

Scotland is the first country to attempt this where alcohol sales are not restricted to government outlets. The experiment has caused intense controversy and its results will be watched by the world.

One accidental beneficiary could be Scotland’s bars and pubs, who would lose less trade to cut-price deals at supermarkets. That would mean more jobs, and perhaps more people drinking in some controlled environment rather than drinking unchecked at home.

As this newspaper reported recently, David Cameron is pushing his Cabinet to follow the Scottish example. He can expect even fiercer resistance from vested interests and long bureaucratic delay. While these are played out, he might consider some more immediate measures.

One is to bring alcohol within the scope of Drug Rehabilitation Requirement Orders. This would give the courts the same power to make offenders confront alcohol problems as they have for other drug-related offences. It would acknowledge that alcohol makes a bigger contribution to offending, particularly domestic violence, than any other drug.

Another would be a 100 per cent tax on the value of all alcohol advertising and promotion, the proceeds to be spent on alcohol education and rehabilitation.

It was recently estimated that the alcohol industry spends over 300 times more on marketing than its contribution to the Drinkaware Trust. The change would correct this imbalance and guarantee that all funding for alcohol promotion was matched automatically by funding for health promotion.

Even if it adopts the last proposal, the Government should nerve itself to set a date to end all alcoholic sponsorship of sport. This will be fiercely resisted.

Alcohol firms will offer copious evidence, much of it plausible, to suggest that sports sponsorship does nothing to promote drinking – as tobacco firms once did with smoking. It should be ignored.

If sports sponsorship does not promote drinking and make people feel better about drinking, then alcohol firms are wasting shareholder funds on it.

Sports will predict dire consequences both for international performance and for the grass roots. They too should be ignored. The association of sport with alcohol is, quite simply, bad for society and incompatible with any sensible public policy on alcohol. Sports dependent on alcohol have lost their souls.

It may be tough for football to give up its Carling and its Budweiser, for rugby union to put down its Guinness and rugby league its Heineken. The Grand National would no doubt like to keep its sponsorship by John Smith of Tadcaster. But all sports should learn to live without alcohol – as they have to in France, which banned alcohol sponsorship some years ago. It does not seem to have harmed their rugby union team.

Finally, instead of the feeble “use responsibly” slogan, the Government should insist on realistic warnings on alcohol labels. These should be tough and clear, but not too melodramatic, so that problem drinkers do not get any perverse sense of importance.

How about “this product will make you happy for a while but then turn you into a sad case. Larger doses will make you vomit and fall over.

Persistent doses will make you fat and stupid and wreck your sex life. Any doses can seriously damage your wallet”?