Warning on heavy drinking 'burden'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Britain's growing culture of heavy drinking is placing an "unsustainable burden" on the healthcare system, costing the NHS £2.7 billion a year, according to a report released today.

The report, from the NHS Confederation and Royal College of Physicians, said the cost to the NHS of excessive drinking has doubled in the past five years.

It called for improvements to systems to identify, assess and treat patients with alcohol problems, but also said a wider change in society's attitudes towards drink was needed.

The bulk of the financial burden is falling on hospitals and ambulance services, which are forced to deal with people who get into difficulties after drinking too much, but there is also a cost in long-term health conditions caused by boozing over many years.

Steve Barnett, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents NHS managers, said alcohol was putting growing pressure on staff and services.

"With only one in 18 people dependent on alcohol receiving treatment, and wide variation in the types of specialist services available, we know that more needs to be done to help identify and treat patients," he said.

"This report shows that not only are we drinking too much but that the cost to our health services is increasing.

"The NHS can play a part in ensuring that treatment is provided for people who are exhibiting the early stages of an addiction to alcohol and by running its services more effectively but a reappraisal of social attitudes to drinking is also well overdue.

"We hope this report helps to outline the scale of the problems facing the NHS and acts as a warning that if we carry on drinking in the way that we are currently, the bar bill will be paid in worse health and a health system struggling to cope."

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "The nation's growing addiction to alcohol is putting an immense strain on health services, especially in hospitals, costing the NHS over £2.7 billion each year. This burden is no longer sustainable.

"The role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol- related harm but also about active prevention, early intervention and working in partnership with services in local communities to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm."

The report, entitled 'Too Much of the Hard Stuff: What Alcohol Costs the NHS', said better links between A&E, mental health, community and ambulance teams would ease the burden caused by excessive drinking and could save as many as 1,000 bed days a year per hospital.

The NHS Confederation's director of policy, Nigel Edwards, said the £2.7 billion healthcare bill for Britain's drinking was made up largely of the cost of ambulance services, treatment and drugs for people who make themselves sick or injure themselves by drinking too much.

The London Ambulance Service alone was called out 60,000 times last year to deal with alcohol-related incidents, which made up a "substantial proportion" of its workload, he said.

But he said the price tag was "probably a major under-estimate" as it did not pick up all of the long-term effects of alcohol on drinkers' health.

Mr Edwards told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Alcohol consumption in this country has gone up by about 20 per cent in the last three decades.

"Britain has always had a bit of a problem with alcohol ... but the problem is getting worse and it has an immediate impact on health services but also you store up big health problems for yourself in the longer term as well and we will be seeing some of those starting to come through, I suspect in the coming decade."

Mr Edwards said the Confederation would "probably" back moves to impose minimum pricing on alcohol in a bid to reduce problem drinking, as there was "good evidence" that cheap drink promotions produced behaviour problems. And he said people who suspect they are drinking hazardously should see their GP, which was one of the most effective ways of confronting the issue.

But he said there was a wider need for the media and celebrities to think about how they present drinking, in order to avoid encouraging excess and drunkenness.

"These problems go beyond the NHS," he said. "There is a pricing issue about how alcohol is priced, but really this is a cultural and societal issue and the NHS can't solve that.

"What is required across society is a recognition of what a big problem alcohol is, not just for the NHS but for incapacity benefit, education and children. It is something that needs a wider approach than just what the NHS can do.

"There are things that opinion-leaders, the media, the newspapers and some of the celebrity culture that tends to encourage this could look at."

But Mr Edwards did not back a proposal from thinktank Policy Exchange yesterday that drinkers who end up in hospital should be charged more than £500 to cover the cost of their admission.

He agreed with the thinktank's estimate that excess drinking on New Year's Eve alone could cost the NHS £23 million this year, but said charging individuals for their treatment was "not a great idea".

NHS patients were not charged for health problems caused when they undertake other dangerous activities, he pointed out. And he said there would be an "enormous" bureaucratic cost for collecting cash from patients and proving that their problems were caused by drink.