Industry warned of tougher action over binge drinking

Jane Kirby,Pa
Tuesday 22 July 2008 12:46 BST

The Government promised tougher action against the alcohol industry today unless it steps up efforts to encourage sensible drinking.

Research has shown the drinks trade is failing to adhere to its own voluntary code on providing alcohol unit information to consumers.

More than 10 years after industry and the Government agreed a way forward for clearer labelling, only 57 per cent of products contain details of the alcohol units in a drink.

Meanwhile, just 3 per cent of products contain all the information ministers want to see, including a warning to pregnant women to avoid alcohol.

The Government is considering banning happy hours, forcing pubs and clubs to serve drinks in smaller glasses as well as larger ones, and stopping off-licences and other retailers from displaying alcohol at checkouts.

Industry representatives reacted by saying existing laws around the sale of alcohol were not currently enforced and argued that the Government's strategy would result in higher prices for sensible drinkers.

Today's promise of a crackdown unless the industry improves comes after figures showed the annual cost to the NHS of drinking now tops £2.7 billion a year.

This includes more than £1 billion spent on treating people in hospital due to alcohol, £372 million on ambulance journeys and £646 million on A&E visits.

The total cost has jumped around £1 billion since figures were last compiled in 2003.

Other data also showed that more than 2.6 million men and women regularly drink at least the equivalent of 20 pints of bitter a week.

In England, almost 1.6 million men are considered "high risk" drinkers, downing more than 50 units of alcohol a week, and so are more than a million women, who are drinking more than 35 units a week.

Around 10 million people in England drink more than the Government's recommended limits, which are no more than two to three units a day for women and three to four for men.

New figures on hospital admissions related to alcohol show that around 420,000 people were admitted in 2006/07.

Some were admitted more than once. In total, there were 811,443 admissions - and the figure is rising by around 80,000 admissions a year.

Overall, 6 per cent of all hospital admissions are linked to drinking.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo, who launched a consultation on the way forward, said it was "disappointing" the industry had not adhered to the voluntary code.

But she said there was no evidence that changes in licensing laws, which allow pubs and clubs to open 24 hours, have had an impact on alcohol consumption.

She added: "The evidence clearly makes this the right time to consult on a far tougher approach to the alcohol industry.

"Obviously individuals have to take responsibility for their drinking, but others, including the industry, also have a role to play."

Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said: "The Government's latest strategy document is simply pointing the way to higher prices for all responsible drinkers without solving the problem of alcohol misuse.

"Culture change will take time but we should start by enforcing the numerous laws we have and build on the education and information programmes acknowledged as successful by Government.

"The drinks industry is demonstrating its commitment to change with programmes such as Challenge 21, Community Alcohol Partnerships and unit awareness campaigns.

"Let's tackle the real reasons why some people misuse alcohol not make the rest of us pay the price."

The drinks industry has been given until the end of the year to put the required warnings on bottles and cans.

If that fails, ministers plan to introduce new laws governing the sale of alcohol.

A separate review is being carried out by experts at Sheffield University on the link between pricing and promotions and alcohol use.

Interim findings said there was "strong and consistent evidence to suggest that price increases and taxation have a significant effect in reducing demand for alcohol".

It went on: "There is strong evidence to suggest that young drinkers, binge-drinkers and harmful drinkers tend to choose cheaper drinks."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association (BMA), said: "Alcohol misuse is related to over 60 medical conditions including heart and liver disease, diabetes, strokes and mental health problems - it costs the NHS millions of pounds every year and is linked to accidents and street violence.

"The truth is there is nothing glamorous about drinking too much alcohol - it wrecks health, lives and families.

"The BMA will be responding in full to the Government's consultation on alcohol and we will certainly be backing tough action like introducing mandatory regulation and labelling and restricting 'happy hours' and irresponsible drinks promotions.

"There can be no more softly, softly approach. The access and affordability of alcohol must be tackled head-on."

Shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien said: "Labour's failure to tackle alcohol abuse is symptomatic of their abject failure on public health.

"It's been low on their priority list, and now we're seeing the consequences, with excessive drinking and associated violent crime still not under control.

"A big part of the problem is that the Government have allowed public health budgets to be raided to plug deficits in the NHS, which has contributed directly to the escalating public health issues of obesity and sexually transmitted diseases as well as alcohol abuse.

"Their decision to recklessly unleash 24-hour drinking on our towns and communities hasn't helped either. Unless Labour gets a grip of the situation, and quickly, the cost to society and the NHS is only going to increase."

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians and chair of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance, said alcohol was "too cheap" and that was driving people to drink more.

But he welcomed today's consultation and the fact that ministers were "prepared to tackle irresponsible behaviour around the sale and promotion of alcoholic drinks".

He added: "It is also excellent that international evidence on the importance of price and promotion on alcohol-related health damage has been confirmed in the latest Department of Health-commissioned report, giving a clear way forward.

"We now urge Government to act on deep discounting and below-cost selling of alcohol."

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