Up to 250,000 lives could be lost over the next 20 years if the Government fails to introduce tougher policies to curb excessive drinking, experts say today.
Deaths from liver disease, mostly caused by alcohol, have more than doubled in the UK in the past 20 years while those in Sweden, Norway, Australia and New Zealand – countries with similar cultures, genetic backgrounds and drinking styles – have remained low.
Deaths from liver disease in France, where there has been greater awareness of the link between drinking and cirrhosis, fell from 30 to 10 per 100,000 between 1986 and 2008, while in the UK they increased from 4.9 to 11.4 in the same period.
The experts – who include the former president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Ian Gilmore – say reversing the rise will require radical measures including the introduction of a minimum price of 50 pence a unit for alcohol, and tighter restrictions on sales and advertising. "Currently the UK drinks producers and retailers are reliant on people risking their health to provide profits," they write in a paper in The Lancet, adding that existing plans to restrict sales are "inconsequential" and "suggest that the Government is too close to industry". Sir Ian said: "We already know from the international evidence that the main ways to reduce alcohol consumption are to increase the price and reduce the availability of alcohol, yet the Government continues to discuss implementing marginal measures while ignoring this evidence."
Professor Jon Rhodes, the president of the British Society of Gastroenterology, said: "This paper highlights the stark future we face if the Government continues to pander to the agendas of the drinks industry.
"It needs to act quickly to take some serious steps to tackle this growing problem."
The outspoken attack will embarrass the Government, which has brought drinks industry representatives into the policy process in defiance of widespread criticism, including a scathing report last month by the Commons health select committee.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, chairs a responsibility deal board which oversees the policy and includes representatives from Diageo, Tesco, Asda and the Wine and Spirit Association.
But its plans to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks below cost (duty plus VAT) and to increase the duty on beer that is over 7.5 per cent in strength have been dismissed, because they would affect only a tiny fraction of sales.