Britain has long had a difficult relationship with alcohol. In the last decade or so, however, there have been notable declines in the amount being consumed by several sections of the population. Young people in particular have become less boozy. In 2014, 38 per cent of children aged 11 to 15 had tried alcohol in England, down from 61 per cent in 2003. These are significant steps in the right direction.
Still, it is also clear that there remain some groups of persistently heavy drinkers whose abuse of alcohol is causing harm to themselves and to others.
A report commissioned by a group of MPs to mark International Children of Alcoholics Week has concluded that alcohol misuse by parents played a prominent role in a third of child deaths and injuries caused by neglect.
And as The Independent reports today, the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions is at an all-time high in England, having risen by more than two-thirds in the last decade. Heart disease, as well as behavioural and mental health problems are all being driven by alcohol misuse.
In the last four years alone hospitals have seen a 13 per cent rise in admissions, while in the same period there has been a 16 per cent fall in the amount being spent on drug and alcohol services across the board.
Cuts to non-emergency alcohol services have plainly, it would seem, resulted in worsening health among those who previously benefited from them. What’s more, by reducing the sums spent on programmes that seek to tackle addiction, there is an obvious knock-on effect for A&E departments, which are already badly stretched. The flaws in this approach ought to be staring ministers in the face.
The fact that the UK is, as a whole, less inclined to hit the bottle than was once the case has perhaps lulled policymakers into a false sense of security.
In truth, though, there is a manifest difference between public health messaging which convinces the population as a whole of the dangers of alcohol, and the targeted help which addicts need.
We know from recent revelations by Public Health England that 4.4 per cent of the population consume 32 per cent of the alcohol drunk in England. It is this group which is being failed most especially by the Government’s current approach.
One partial solution may be minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks. That policy will be implemented in Scotland in May of this year and many campaigners argue that England and Wales should swiftly follow suit. Cheap products such as high-strength cider will be most notably affected and most predictions suggests there will, as a consequence, be a decline in consumption.
Critics grumble that this is an example of the “nanny state” in action. But if the consequences are that people die in smaller numbers from alcohol-related illnesses and A&E services are given some breathing space, the libertarians will quickly be quietened.
What’s more, the effects of alcohol abuse are not only felt by those who drink too much. Violence and other crime is plainly fuelled by excessive boozing. Society, therefore, has the right to fight back.
However, minimum pricing alone is not sufficient. Individuals who cannot contain their need for alcohol require help from health service professionals. And that means, ultimately, that the Government must urgently reassess the level of support it is prepared to give to addiction services. To leave individuals who are heavily alcohol-dependent to their own devices is not only morally wrong but likely in the end to cost the NHS more money when it ultimately picks up the pieces.
Beyond all this, there remains work to be done when it comes to shifting attitudes towards drinking alcohol. While the general trend is towards more moderate consumption, the prevalence of binge-drinking is still too high. Moreover, middle-class drinkers who regularly open a bottle of wine at the end of a hard day in the office are storing up problems for the future.
Britain may be less boozy than once it was. But for our own sakes – and for the health of the NHS – we cannot rest on our laurels, or indeed our grapevines.
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