Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

MPs call for clampdown on alcohol misuse

Jane Hughes
BBC health correspondent

For and against: Kevin Barron MP (L) and industry spokesman Gavin Partington

MPs have called for a fundamental overhaul of government policy to curb excessive drinking.

The Health Select Committee called for minimum pricing, a rise in duty on spirits and white cider and stricter regulation of advertising.

Its scathing report accused ministers of paying more attention to the drinks industry's views than health experts.

The committee's report estimated that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would save 3,000 deaths a year.

The committee heard that alcohol was probably a significant factor in up to 40,000 deaths a year in England and Wales.

A 2007 study estimated the cost of alcohol to society - including factors such as family damage and criminal justice - at £55bn every year, although a 2003 Cabinet Office report put the figure at £20bn.

Even small reductions in the number of people misusing alcohol could save the NHS millions
Kevin Barron, MP

Minimum pricing has already proved a controversial measure, having been endorsed both by the Scottish Executive and the Chief Medical Officer for England, but rejected by the prime minister and the Conservative Party.

Critics say it would penalise moderate drinkers, but the Health Select Committee rejected that as a myth.

It said minimum pricing would only cost a moderate drinker a few pence a week, and would target those who drink very cheap alcohol.

Industry's dependency

The report said the drinks industry depends on people who drink hazardous or harmful amounts for three-quarters of its sales.

And if everyone stuck to their safe drinking limits, it said alcohol sales in the UK would fall by 40%.

man drinking

The MPs were critical of attempts to reduce the harm from alcohol through education campaigns.

They said these were ineffective at changing behaviour, and pointed out that drinks industry promotions cost many times what the government spends on encouraging responsible drinking.

The report also criticised the response from government, saying it "ranged from the non-existent to the ineffectual."

"The facts about alcohol abuse are shocking," said committee chair, Labour MP Kevin Barron.

"Even small reductions in the number of people misusing alcohol could save the NHS millions.

"What is required is fundamental culture change."


Public Health Minister Gillian Merron said the government was already working to reduce alcohol harm, but change would not happen overnight.

The British Medical Association welcomed the report and agreed that the drinks industry and supermarkets exerted too much power over government alcohol policies.

We can influence the irresponsible minority through better education and effective law enforcement
Seymour Fortescue
Portman Group

"This cosy relationship needs to end, and we need radical action to tackle alcohol misuse," said their ethics head, Dr Vivienne Nathanson.

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: "This is a damning indictment of the way successive governments have tackled alcohol health harm, with action ranging from the non-existent to the ineffectual."

Don Shenkar, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said it beggars belief that the government was still "dithering".

"If they don't act on these recommendations now, they'll lose all credibility in their stated attempts to change British drinking culture."

But the Portman Group, which represents the drinks industry, said minimum pricing would affect responsible drinkers, and should be targeted at the minority who abuse alcohol.

"We can influence the irresponsible minority through better education and effective law enforcement," said chairman, Seymour Fortescue.

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