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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 11:13 GMT
6bn bill for alcohol abuse
off licence
Many hospital patients have drink problems
Leading doctors are calling for more concerted efforts to tackle the UK's alcohol problem - which costs the economy billions each year.

The Royal College of Physicians wants to see alcohol abuse given an equal priority to drug misuse both inside hospitals and at the Department of Health.

It says a national figurehead to drive anti-alcohol policy - similar to the "drugs czar" appointed by the government - is needed.

We're not trying to play down the drug problem, but drugs are given a much higher priority

Professor Ian Gilmore, Royal College of Physicians
The Royal College research suggests that as much as 12% of the total NHS hospital budget is spent dealing with drink-related problems - a total of 3bn a year.

And a similar amount is lost to the economy through absenteeism, unemployment, accidents, premature death and alcohol-related crime.

The Royal College says hospitals are rarely geared up to quickly identify and help problem drinkers who come through their doors.

Problem drinking is on the rise among women
Professor Ian Gilmore, a consultant physician from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, and Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians, told BBC News Online: "We're not trying to play down the drug problem, but drugs are given a much higher priority.

"But looking at the overall cost to society, alcohol is far worse."

Simple measures, he said, such as employing a nurse whose focus was to identify problem drinkers, could save the NHS huge sums of money.

He said: "The alcohol specialist nurse at the Royal Liverpool Hospital was able to save her entire annual salary in the first couple of weeks."

The report has been produced by a working party which included Eric Appleby, the director of Alcohol Concern.

He said: "The report is further proof that the government needs to look at the full health, economic and social effects of alcohol misuse and devise a concerted strategy to tackle the problem.

207m figure

"At the moment different departments have responsibility for various aspects of alcohol policy - with the National Health Service generally dealing with the symptoms of inaction."

However, the Department of Health disputed the claim that alcohol misuse costs the NHS 3bn a year.

Its own estimates suggest that the real figure is 207m.

A spokesman said: "We recognise it is a heavy burden on all of us.

"A consultation paper to tackle a national strategy which will be published shortly will consider ways in which barriers can be broken down."

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See also:

16 Jan 01 | Health
Drink injury link confirmed
06 Jan 01 | Health
Alcohol 'cuts strokes in women'
08 Nov 00 | Health
One in 20 'hooked on drink'
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