Government not taking alcohol harm seriously
Deaths rose 89% over last two decades and sharply since start of pandemic
Estimated £25 BN/year cost to NHS and wider society out of date and may not reflect full scale of harm
Alcohol linked to over 100 illnesses and 42% of violent crime but no strategy in place since 2012
Balance the North East Alcohol Programme has urged more action nationally on alcohol after a new report by the Public Accounts Committee found a staggering 82% of dependent drinkers in England are not receiving the treatment they need.
In the North East around 47% of adults are drinking above the low risk guidelines of 14 units per week, with men and over 45s drinking at particularly high levels. It comes as latest figures show that the North East has the highest rate of alcohol deaths, deaths from liver disease and alcohol related hospital admissions in England.
An estimated 10 million people in England regularly exceed the Chief Medical Officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines, including 1.7 million who drink at higher risk levels and around 600,000 who are dependent on alcohol.
But in a report today the Public Accounts Committee says a “staggering” 82% of those 600,000 dependent drinkers in England are not in treatment despite success rates of around 60% and evidence that, on average, every £1 spent on treatment immediately delivers £3 of benefit and significantly more in the longer term.
There has been an alarming increase in alcohol deaths, which rose by 89% over the past 20 years, and with sharp rises since 2019. But the number of people receiving treatment for alcohol dependency has generally been falling.
Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “For too long England has been sleepwalking into a public health crisis with alcohol. Deaths from alcohol are at an all-time high, liver disease is soaring and the North East has the worst rates of alcohol related hospital admissions in the country.
“Our region – which already faces huge economic and social challenges – is the hardest hit when it comes to alcohol harms.
“We must do more to prevent people from becoming ill and dying from alcohol related causes and to reduce the burden on our NHS, local authorities and emergency services. We need evidence-based action nationally on alcohol which tackles price and availability, awareness of risks and the current free-for-all of alcohol marketing. “
Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead Council and Alcohol Policy Lead at the Association of Directors of Public Health, recently gave evidence at the Public Accounts Committee and said: “This report is a step in the right direction to highlight the issues many people are facing when it comes to accessing alcohol treatment. But alcohol harms are going in the wrong direction and treatment alone is not a silver bullet when alcohol is so cheap and children see alcohol brands plastered over the shirt of their favourite team and in every aisle of the local supermarket.
“Alcohol is too affordable, too readily available and heavily glamourized by an industry which spends billions of pound a year convincing people to drink and which relies on dependent drinkers for the bulk of its profits. By blaming a small minority of ‘irresponsible drinkers’ for driving alcohol harms, the industry has effectively stigmatized people with alcohol dependency. As a society, we need to recognize that alcohol is a harmful product and that dependency is not a failing of the people affected.
“Everyone should feel able to ask for support without fear of judgement and that would help with the ultimate aim of reducing the harm that alcohol causes for individuals, families and our wider communities.”
The Department for Health and Social Care’s understanding of the total cost of alcohol harm for the NHS and wider society is based on analysis dating back to 2012. That puts the estimate at £25 billion a year (adjusted for inflation) but the Committee is concerned that this more than decade-old analysis may not reflect the full scale of harm. The Committee is “surprised and disappointed” that the Department is not taking a more proportionate and serious approach to addressing the problem. Despite the widespread harm, there has been no alcohol-focused strategy since 2012 and the latest plans for one were abandoned in 2020.
Alcohol is linked to over 100 illnesses, can drive mental disorder, self-harm and suicide, and is a major cause of preventable death. In 2019-20 it was linked to 42% of all violent crime, up from 40% the previous year.
The Committee says DHSC must secure a consensus and act on the best available evidence on preventative measures around price, availability, and marketing. It must also address the key issues of funding uncertainty for local authorities; barriers to accessing treatment; local variations in outcomes and severe and worsening healthcare workforce shortages.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “The harms from alcohol are appalling and the benefits of every £1 spent on treatment are immediate and obvious. It is linked to over 100 illnesses, mental disorder and suicide and to 42% of violent crime. It also costs the NHS and wider society at least £25 billion a year with inflation – and possibly more. But the Government has had no alcohol strategy in place since 2012 and abandoned its latest effort in 2020 – just as deaths from alcohol began to rise sharply over the terrible, unacceptable toll it was already taking. What more does DHSC need to see to act decisively on this most harmful intoxicant? In doing so it must give local authorities the certainty and stability over funding to maintain and improve the treatment programmes that are proven to work, and stop dithering over the evidence on industry reforms.”
Lead PAC Member and instigator of this inquiry Dan Carden MP said: “Today’s report lays bare the lack of political will to address alcohol harm. The Government’s record on alcohol harm is one of policies scrapped and promises broken.
“Alcohol harm is a deepening public health crisis that affects us all and it is wrong and unfair to believe that it is only alcohol dependent drinkers who are affected.
“Shamefully, it has been 11 years since the last Government UK Alcohol Strategy. The measures set out in the 2012 strategy were, and remain, effective evidence-led health policies that prevent death, improve public health and alleviate pressures on our public services. The abject failure to deliver on promised initiatives has certainly contributed to tragic yet preventable levels of alcohol harm felt across the UK.
“In recent years, there has been a concerted and somewhat successful effort from the Government to implement strategies aimed to tackle obesity, gambling, tobacco, and illicit drugs. Arguably the most harmful and legal drug, alcohol, remains unchallenged. During the Public Accounts Inquiry, the Department provided no credible justification as to why alcohol remains a conspicuous outlier.
“With thousands of families broken by alcohol, the highest alcohol-specific deaths on record, 84% of alcohol dependent people in need of treatment not receiving it and the enormous cost to the public purse, the Government must now remove the barriers of inaction and act on the recommendations set out in this report.”