The costs of alcoholic excess, quitting by computer - and Middle England's big scam

Excessive drinking at weekends puts a million people in hospital casualty units every year, according to a study that reveals the huge scale of the alcohol problem in Britain.

A survey of 32 accident and emergency departments found that four out of 10 people seen on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings had been involved in an alcohol-related incident, often a violent assault or drink driving.

Colin Drummond, a specialist in addiction psychiatry at St George's Hospital Medical School in London, said that alcohol addiction was a growing problem among young people, especially women. He told the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Salford University that the Government needed a national strategy to fight a threat far more serious than drugs such as cocaine or heroin.

Professor Drummond said the promotion of alcohol was getting out of control, with growing numbers of young men and women being drawn into a culture of serious drinking.

"The alcohol problem in the UK is much bigger than the drug problem. In the UK about a third of men and a fifth of women drink above the Government's safe guidelines for alcohol consumption. By comparison, about one in 200 people has a serious drug problem."

He said he was concernedby a 25 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths in the past 10 years. This was compounded by a 32 per cent increase in alcohol misuse by young males aged between 18 and 24 in the past 12 years.

"All the indicators are upwards," Professor Drummond said. "If you look at women of the same age, there's actually been a 70 per cent increase in alcohol misuse over that period. There are huge marketing effects taking place. There's a lot of money spent on making drinking attractive to women and this is part of the reason."

Some more explicit forms of alcohol advertising should be restricted, he went on. "I think advertising that uses sexual imagery is a problem."

Health campaigns were competing with multinational companies that he said spent billions on advertising. This means that the health message often got lost. Professor Drummond also accused the alcohol industry of flouting voluntary advertising codes.

A national strategy was needed to consider a ban on certain forms of alcohol advertising, he said. The Government should also think about raising the drinking age, putting warning labels on bottles or increasing prices to discourage binge drinking. "There has been a lack of funding and political will to support efforts to deal with alcohol problems and we're hopeful that the Government will develop a national alcohol strategy [for] ... a sensible and appropriately funded approach," he said.

A GP who spent between 10 and 30 minutes advising a patient on an alcohol problem could reduce excessive drinking by 20 per cent over a 12- month period. That was the sort of intervention than could combat the rise in drinking, Professor Drummond said.

"If alcohol is cheap and easily available it is very often the drug that people choose first to cope with their problems and before very long they develop an addiction ... so it becomes very hard to cope with any problem without alcohol," he said. "Alcohol is a drug like heroin or cannabis, and it produces addiction in a small proportion of people. The wealthier we are as a nation, the more we can afford to drink, and in the absence of any intervention to increase the cost of alcohol, you're going to get this upward trend."