It is a drug that killed more than 8,300 people in 2012, and has taken the lives of at least 5,000 English and Welsh citizens every year for the last decade. It is the culprit behind between one and two out of every hundred deaths. Despite a small drop in fatalities compared with 2011, the death toll is still around one and a half times greater than it was just two decades ago. Its abuse can lead to conditions ranging from strokes to heart disease. It is a potentially lethal substance that kills 2.5 million globally, and damages the health of far, far more. And as well as the human toll, it costs the British economy £21bn a year in crime and healthcare.
This drug is, of course, alcohol, a perfectly legal substance that escapes the mania reserved for less damaging, yet illicit, substances. Consider this fact, from Alcohol Concern, which underlines just how perverse our response to alcohol is compared with other drugs: while £1,313 is spent on treating every dependent drug user, just £136 is reserved for every dependent drinker.
The trend is frightening indeed. Drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction tell me that, two years ago, booze replaced heroin as the main substance-abuse problem they had to deal with. The number of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease has surged by nearly a fifth since 2002. And let’s not pretend that this is the affliction of caricatured so-called “sink estates”, or of young women lying unconscious outside nightclubs. Research shows that affluent Brits consume more alcohol – and more regularly – than manual workers or unemployed people. “An individual is more likely to drink regularly and above recommended limits during the week if s/he is a high-income earning professional worker,” say the Institute of Alcohol Studies. This should really be common sense – those with more dosh can afford to buy more wine and beer – but is counter-intuitive in an atmosphere where the unemployed are frequently portrayed as feckless binge-drinkers.
It’s the same when it comes to age. It is not the 18-year-olds getting hammered in Manchester and Newcastle town centres on a Friday night we need to worry about most. Sure, it makes great copy for certain newspapers, partly because it is so visible, but what happens quietly behind closed doors is far more frightening. Indeed, drinking among young people has actually been falling considerably over the last few years. It is middle-aged men who are drinking the most, and more than a fifth of those hospitalised with serious alcohol or other drug problems are now in their 40s. Addaction, for example, experienced a stunning 315 per cent increase in over-50-year-olds reporting problems with alcohol between 2009 and 2013.
This all-too silent pandemic urgently needs to be addressed, and that means dealing with the lack of funding for dealing with alcohol compared with other drugs. Because the reasons behind alcohol abuse vary so wildly, so must the treatments. Child abuse, domestic abuse, trauma, and homelessness are among the wildly differing driving forces behind alcohol problems, all needing different approaches.
But, in an age of austerity, these sorts of crucial services face attack. According to a survey by Drugscope, a third of those in the drug-treatment sector have already reported cutbacks, significantly more than those who report improvements. Local authorities are charged with public health responsibilities, and have to decide how much to allocate to treating the alcohol pandemic. And yet they face cuts which are unprecedented in modern times, with the bulk still to come. Although the public health budget is ring-fenced, some local authorities fear that they will be left without the resources to maintain functions that they are required by law to provide. Under pressure authorities could even end up extending the definition of “public health” to free up money.
The deadly pandemic of alcohol misuse just underlines the absurd hypocrisies of Britain’s drug laws. That fountain of common sense, Professor David Nutt, was sacked by New Labour in 2009 for stating the obvious: alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis, LSD and ecstasy. Yet we criminalise people for using these substances, as well as ensuring a steady source of income for thuggish gangs that prey on the most vulnerable and fuel a whole range of other crimes. Those who respond with “Ah, so why legalise other drugs, even if they’re less dangerous” should look to the US Prohibition for what happens when substances that are in demand are handed over to criminal gangs. That is why it is so welcome that Green MP Caroline Lucas has triggered a parliamentary debate on having an evidence-based policy, rather than one riddled with hypocrisy and inconsistency.
Alcohol abuse needs to be treated as the national disaster that it is. Banning alcohol advertising would be a good start. But those struggling with alcohol abuse need far more help: just 6 per cent of people struggling with alcohol dependency get access to treatment, compared with 23 per cent in Italy. This is indefensible, and not just from the perspective of basic humanity. As Alcohol Concern point out, every £1 spent on treatment saves £5 in cost. Unless there is change, thousands will continue to die, and billions will continue to be lost. What a waste.