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The government is failing to tackle record-high alcohol-related deaths

(Alamy)

3 min read

The impact of alcohol on the health of the nation is routinely ignored – and yet we know it is driving a public health crisis.

Recent figures show a 32.8 per cent rise in deaths from alcohol-specific causes from 2019 to 2022 across the United Kingdom. However, if you were to judge the level of crisis by what the government is doing to prevent it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing was wrong. Month after month, year after year, I have witnessed government inertia simply allowing this to happen.

We have long known that drinking patterns changed during the pandemic, with heavier drinkers consuming more alcohol on average. Sadly, these levels have barely come down and have already had significant health implications. There were 2,483 more alcohol-related deaths in 2022 than 2019, with deaths concentrated in our most deprived communities. 

Prevention policies are simply being ignored

Alcohol is the leading risk factor for ill health and death among those aged 15 to 49. With long-term economic stability being increasingly dependent on a healthy working population, there is a clear economic incentive to preventing these deaths. There is also a moral obligation to create and sustain an environment that allows people to live healthier lives.

You would think that we do not have the knowledge or capability to tackle this problem, yet we know exactly what to do to reduce alcohol consumption and harm. Prevention policies are simply being ignored. 

Decades of research have found that there are three powerful ways that governments can reduce alcohol harm: reduce how affordable, available, and appealing alcohol is. However, the government is doing precisely the opposite. 

The Chancellor has frozen alcohol duties once again, meaning duty has been frozen at almost every Budget in the last decade. Making alcohol more or less affordable is a political decision between either supporting the health of our people or supporting a multinational alcohol industry. Yet the Chancellor makes the decision under the pretence of helping pubs. He knows full well that it does not help pubs; it helps supermarkets maintain lower prices on alcohol, driving people to drinking at home. This comes back full circle to reinforcing drinking patterns that people developed during the pandemic. 

In 2012, then prime minister David Cameron rightly launched an alcohol strategy to tackle increasing alcohol consumption and harm. The strategy included plans to introduce minimum unit pricing (MUP), calorie labelling, bans on multi-buy promotions, and health as a licensing objective. 

Twelve years on, none of these policies have been introduced in England. Scotland decided to take many of these policies forward as a devolved government and the results have been laudable. 

Deaths from alcohol in Scotland have increased, but at a much slower rate than those in England, with MUP being the key mitigating factor. Since 2018, when the policy was introduced, the death rate from alcohol in Scotland has risen by nine per cent. In England that rise has been 36 per cent. Every single English region has seen a higher increase in its alcohol death rate than Scotland during the period. 

With MUP being one of the most comprehensively evaluated policies across the UK, surely Westminster would jump at the chance of such an effective tool? 

If Labour succeeds in forming a government, we have an exciting opportunity to demonstrate the crucial importance of prevention policies. A positive and evidence-based approach will help bolster Labour’s fiscal prudence by supporting long-term productivity and reducing the exorbitant cost that alcohol places on our NHS, emergency services, and criminal justice system. But ultimately, and more importantly, it will save the lives of thousands of people across the UK, preventing people losing their loved ones far before their time. 

 

Dan Carden, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton

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