This article entitled ‘Dying for a drink: alcohol-related deaths and illness cost us dearly‘ was featured in The Guardian prior to Christmas. It discusses how more needs to be done to raise awareness of the damage that alcohol causes to the NHS and wider society and I couldn’t agree more.
Alcohol is a factor in 8-10% of GP consultations in the UK every day. There are more than 10m alcohol-related visits to the NHS a year. Admissions for alcohol misuse are likely to hit 1.5m a year unless the government steps in to tackle the problem.
The impact of alcohol misuse across the rest of the NHS, in hospitals and in our communities is huge. More than 10 million adults in England now drink more than the recommended daily limit, with 2.6 million drinking more than twice that. As a GP for 30 years, I have witnessed first-hand how alcohol destroys lives. I have seen people who had cirrhosis of the liver or another alcohol-related illness, such as heart disease, as well as those who were injured or assaulted while drunk. My colleagues working in accident and emergency departments tell me that every weekend they see children who have been found unconscious through drink on the street and brought to hospital by the police or the ambulance service.
Alcohol has been linked to more than 25% of serious offences and 35% of all violent offences – how many of those end up in A&E and are admitted to hospitals? The effects of excessive drinking on livers, hearts and waistlines are disastrous. We know under the influence of alcohol people are attacked, have road traffic accidents and have unsafe sex.
Alcohol, in anything but very modest quantities, is potentially a destructive and toxic substance. Your first pint of the day may be beneficial, but your second eliminates the benefit of the first and from then on it is harmful. According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death and disability in developed countries after smoking and high blood pressure. It is related to more than 60 medical conditions – and to violent crime and domestic abuse, destroying families.
Over the centuries, alcohol has become the country’s favourite drug. The introduction of round-the-clock licensing in 2005 has prompted concerns that this has led to an increase in violence and alcohol abuse. The 24-hour drinking legislation has undermined clinician and police efforts to get to grips with this problem.
Society needs to stop marketing the myth of alcohol and start telling the truth: too much alcohol causes huge damage; too much alcohol kills. Yet advertisements offering cut-price drinks are everywhere. Alcohol is marketed through increasingly sophisticated advertising and promotional techniques, including sponsoring sporting events and concerts and through social media sites. There has to be legislation for a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, and we need to introduce minimum alcohol pricing to curb the binge drinking culture. There should be freedom of debate about alcohol issues, but there is no reason to concede any freedom to persuade people to harm themselves, especially if the persuasion is motivated by commercial gain.
No one should be in any doubt that the heavy marketing and promotion of alcohol, combined with low prices, encourages young people to drink at levels with which the NHS and society are struggling to cope. Alcohol misuse costs the NHS and the justice system about £25bn every year. That figure covers the cost of healthcare, crime, social disorder and lack of productivity at work attributable to alcohol, including the £2.7bn the NHS spends treating the chronic and acute effects of drinking.
Establishing a minimum price and restricting promotions would be the most effective way to reduce the harm alcohol causes. However, that is unlikely to be enough to change the drinking culture. The historical cultural acceptability of alcohol needs be questioned, starting at primary school level. We also need to get to the root causes of what motivates significant numbers of people who think it is acceptable to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, drink to excess and indulge in antisocial behaviour.
Successive governments have been too complacent about the problem of alcohol abuse – particularly among young people. Apart from investing in alcohol health workers in hospitals, A&E units and GP practices, we need to involve schools, parents, police, local authorities and health professionals in providing better information and education about how alcohol can damage health. Alcohol should have a calorie content label, which may help the nation’s waistlines as well as reduce alcohol consumption. But more needs to be done to raise awareness of both the contents and harms of alcohol. How about having a national alcohol free day between Christmas and new year as a starter? It is high time we stopped dying for a drink.
Cracking first comment to the piece too:
And yet we laugh at people who are drunk, we make hangovers a funny story, we swap stories of drunken activities and its all too acceptable to act like an offensive crazy person – because they are drunk. To change how people think about alcohol, how accepted its use is in the world, does it need more and more people to get sick? Or can we as a people, stop and have the honesty to look at what it’s really doing to us? It’s really not funny at all.