Page last updated at 23:45 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 00:45 UK

Confusion 'fuels alcohol misuse'

Press Association
Rates of heavy alcohol use have been increasing

Widespread public confusion about how much it is safe to drink may be contributing to the growth of alcohol misuse in England, say MPs.

The Commons public accounts committee said ministers needed to assess whether new guidance was needed.

It also criticised the way alcohol services were structured, claiming primary care trusts (PCTs) were failing to tackle the problem.

Government officials said action was being taken to tackle alcohol misuse.

Your chances of suffering from a number of diseases, such as throat, mouth and breast cancer increase if you drink above government recommended guidelines
Don Shenker
Alcohol Concern

The NHS recommends a limit of three to four units of alcohol per day for men, and two to three units for women but it is estimated that nearly a third of men and a fifth of women regularly drink more than this.

Alcohol-related health problems cost the NHS an estimated £2.7bn a year.

In 2006-07, there were 811,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions - a 71% increase in four years.

Between midnight and 5am on weekend nights, nearly three-quarters of all attendances at A&E departments are related to alcohol.

Government research has shown that found 77% of people did not know how many units were contained in a typical large glass of wine (between 2.5 and 3.5 units depending on the strength).

The MPs said there was a "widespread and long-standing lack of clarity in the minds of the public" on the government's drinking guidelines.

They also said health ministers should assess whether the current guidelines were fit for purpose or should be replaced with something more "readily understood".

Health damage

Edward Leigh, the Conservative chairman of the committee, said: "Too many people are drinking too much.

"In doing so, many are on course to damaging their health and general well-being.

"The burden on local health services is of course huge, with the rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions climbing sharply and accident and emergency (A&E) departments flooded on weekend nights with drink-associated injury cases."

Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said: "Your chances of suffering from a number of diseases, such as throat, mouth and breast cancer increase if you drink above government recommended guidelines.

"Yet labelling of alcohol is poor with insufficient information for consumers to make informed choices about their drinking."

Mr Shenker called for mandatory labelling of alcohol products with information about how many units they contained, and recommended safe drinking levels.

The MPs' report said responsibility for tackling alcohol misuse had been handed to PCTs, but many had not drawn up strategies to tackle alcohol harm in their area, or kept across what was being spent on relevant local services.

This lack of co-ordination raised the risk that dependent drinkers would relapse into their old ways following treatment.

Minimum pricing

In Scotland ministers have proposed a range of measures to tackle alcohol abuse including a ban on cut-price offers and plans for a minimum price per unit.

The Westminster report calls for ministers to re-examine potential changes to the way alcohol is priced and promoted in England.

An independent review for the Department of Health found that alcohol had become 69% more affordable between 1980 and 2007.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer for England, is among those who believe a minimum pricing policy could help tackle alcohol misuse.

The MPs' report also criticised government departments for failing to communicate effectively on matters such as licensing, taxation and glass sizes.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the report demonstrated that the delivery of alcohol policy locally had been "unco-ordinated and muddled".

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the British Medical Associaton's head of science and ethics, said: "Alcohol misuse affects health, transport and crime and more government joined-up thinking is needed.

"In order to tackle alcohol misuse tough action is needed such as increasing taxes on drinks with the highest alcohol concentration, banning alcohol advertising and reducing the drink-driving limit."

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said: "Enough is enough and it's time to get tough.

"Standardised labelling is a must. But so too is a ban on deep price cuts and giveaways.

"The government should stop pussyfooting around and set a minimum price for alcohol that eliminates ultra-cheap heavy drinking without disaffecting all those who drink moderately."

Health Minister Ann Keen said the Know Your Limits campaign had specifically raised awareness of the number of units in alcoholic drinks.

She said: "Action on many of the issues raised in this report is already happening - we have given the local NHS the resources, guidance and support they need to put the right services in place."

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