Leading article: A national drinking problem

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The Independent Online

The healthcare establishment released a sobering warning yesterday, doubtless timed to coincide with many a remorseful New Year's Day hangover.

A joint report from the Royal College of Physicians and the NHS Confederation calculates that alcohol abuse costs the NHS more than £2.7bn a year, twice as much as five years ago. If this trend continues, according to the report, alcoholism and binge drinking could impose an intolerable strain on many hospitals.

Creditably, these doctors and managers are not just drawing attention to problems, but suggesting possible solutions, too. They advocate greater provision of advice and counselling in GPs' surgeries for patients with nascent drinking problems. Trials have shown that, where such help is given, it has been remarkably effective in weaning patients off the bottle; more than twice as effective, indeed, as services designed to help patients quit smoking.

A preventive approach to health problems certainly makes economic sense. The NHS would be much more effective in boosting health outcomes if it devoted greater resources to stopping problems developing in the first place, rather than merely dealing with the messy aftermath. Reformers have long urged the NHS to shift from being a national illness service to a genuine national health service.

Yet heavy drinking is a social, as well as a health, problem. More counselling is important, but it also needs to be reinforced by broader cultural change. Britons have always been relatively heavy drinkers compared to southern Europeans – and, in all likelihood, always will be. But that does not mean that useful corrective action cannot be taken by the Government to our increasingly booze-orientated leisure culture.

Excessive alcohol consumption in public spaces, for instance, ought to be discouraged. This need not be a draconian mission. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, banned drinking on the Capital's Underground system when he took up office in 2008. Though initially resisted, the ban is now broadly accepted, indeed praised. There is a lesson here. Ministers might find that, if they take action to rein in Britain's excessive boozing, they enjoy a surprising degree of popular support.

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