Alcohol strategy skewed towards public order rather than health
The government’s alcohol strategy is too concerned with public order rather than the impact on health of alcohol misuse, which is “more insidious and pervasive,” MPs warn today.
The annual death toll from alcohol-related conditions is more than three times that of road traffic accidents, and costs the NHS up to 3% of its annual budget.
In its response to the government’s alcohol strategy, which was published in March this year, the Health Select Committee welcomes the government’s attempt to draw up a coherent approach to the problems alcohol causes.
But committee chair, Stephen Dorrell, said: “The main focus of the strategy is binge drinking and its consequences for anti-social behaviour and public disorder. Those are important issues, but the health impact of chronic alcohol misuse is, in our view, also significant, and greater emphasis needs to be placed on addressing that impact.”
The report accepts that defining a safe level of alcohol consumption “is a complicated issue, we regard a clearer, evidence-based definition of the health effects of alcohol consumption as fundamental to successful policy development in this area.”
And it warns against “disproportionate or heavy handed controls which are justified neither by public support nor evidence of proportionate health gain.”
Importantly, the strategy also failed to define what it meant by success, said Mr Dorrell. “We believe that in order to be effective, [it] needs some clearer objectives to provide a framework for both policy judgements and accountability,” adding that this should be undertaken by Public Health England.
He said that the committee backed the government’s plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol, but warned that this mustn’t be seen as a “one off.” It would need to be reset, on the basis of the evidence, and its impact would need to be continually monitored, he said.
The report recommends a ‘sunset clause’ on the implementation of minimum pricing so that it only remains in place if it is shown to be effective in reducing harmful drinking.
And it also concludes that the Responsibility Deal should not become a substitute for government policy, and that Public Health England should assess how effective the Deal actually is. Industry needs to do more than offer to cut the alcohol content of lagers, otherwise it would be seen as merely “paying lip service” to the Deal, it says.
The report recommends that rules on the advertising of alcohol should be looked at again, to curb the likelihood of ads being seen or directed towards the under 18s, and calls on industry to acknowledge that its advertising does affect attitudes to alcohol and consumption.
And it urges the government to commission research looking at the principles and implications of introducing the French Loi Evin, which bans the promotion of alcohol in the media and at major sporting events.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s Director of Professional Activities, said the BMA agreed that government needed to focus more on the wider health issues associated with drinking too much.
“The scale of alcohol consumption in England causes significant medical, psychological and social harm and places a huge burden on the NHS. This is not caused by binge drinkers alone, but is a result of the high level of consumption across the population,” she said.
“The BMA is particularly concerned about the role the alcohol industry has in the government’s strategy,” she added. “There is a clear conflict of interest here. While the alcohol industry has a role to play, this should be in implementing regulations, not having a voice in what they should be.
Deputy director of policy at the NHS Confederation, Jo Webber, called on the government to “set out its stall clearly.” She said: “It needs to be explicit about what it’s going to do, by when, and how, in order to tackle our current problems with alcohol usage, as the NHS can’t keep picking up the pieces. Otherwise it will be unsustainable.”
originally published at onMedica Thursday, 19 July 2012