Letter: Totting up the tipplers

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The Independent Online
From Dr Chris Cook

Sir: What will the Government now do about its Health of the Nation target to reduce the numbers of men and women drinking more than the sensible limits of alcohol? Their targets, based on the old recommendations, which most doctors still uphold, were less than one in six men, and less than one in 18 women drinking more than the recommended amounts by 2005. Until yesterday, the evidence was that they had made no progress towards this end.

The OPCS Health Survey for England 1993 (published by HMSO in 1995) showed 30 per cent of men drinking more than 21 units per week, and 13 per cent of women drinking more than 14 units per week. Published data do not show corresponding figures for the new limits, which correspond to weekly totals of 28 and 21 units respectively. However, the survey did show 15 per cent of men drinking more than 35 units per week, and 4 per cent of women drinking more than 25 units per week.

Extrapolating from these figures, we might estimate that about 23 per cent of men (one in four) and 7 per cent of women (one in 14) are drinking over the new limits. In other words, by moving the goal posts the Government has at a stroke virtually achieved its targets for women, and has gone a long way towards achieving them for men. A great success - despite absolutely no change in the nation's drinking!

Presumably, the Government could maintain the old limits as targets for Health of the Nation. This would seem contradictory, to say the least. Assuming that it moves to the new limits, it is in effect saying that the present levels of alcohol consumption within the population are already close to acceptable. This is despite an estimated 40,000 alcohol-related deaths in this country each year, and an estimated cost to the nation of pounds 2,500m per year attributable to alcohol-related problems. Of course, the financial cost is easily offset by the revenue received through alcohol sales, via taxation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Health of the Nation was not an important consideration in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Cook

Consultant and Senior Lecturer

National Addiction Centre and

Maudsley Hospital

London, SE5

13 December