We need a new strategy to tackle alcohol harm after over a decade of inaction
As a society, we have a complex relationship with alcohol. While we celebrate and normalise its consumption, we stay silent about its harm.
Every year, thousands of people die because of their alcohol consumption and many more are harmed. The harm goes far beyond the individual who drinks too much; it affects children, families, communities and society.
In 2012 the government acknowledged the dangerous levels of alcohol harm across our communities and introduced an ambitious plan - The Government Alcohol Strategy.
It is no wonder that alcohol specific deaths are at an all-time high
We were told that the 2012 strategy would “radically reshape the approach to alcohol and reduce the number of people drinking to excess” through 30 commitments or actions covering various areas.
The flagship policies included: minimum unit pricing; banning multi-buy alcohol promotions in shops; and regulating to ensure public health is considered as an objective by local authorities when making alcohol licencing decisions.
The policies set out in the strategy were projected to result in 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths a year by the end of the decade (2022).
Despite David Cameron’s assertions that, “We can't go on like this”, a year after its publication – and much to the dismay of the medical community – government scrapped all key evidenced-based proposals.
Therefore, there has been no alcohol strategy since 2012 and the situation has never looked bleaker.
After a decade of inaction, it is no wonder that alcohol specific deaths are at an all-time high, there are 980,000 alcohol related hospital admissions in England each year, the cost to society is upwards of £27bn and one in five children are now living with at least one parent with an alcohol use disorder.
These harms are not felt equally across society: the most deprived are significantly more likely to feel the adverse impacts of alcohol, despite drinking less alcohol on average.
With thousands of families and communities destroyed, people are right to ask why there is no government plan to tackle alcohol harm.
In recent years, the government have taken important steps to improve public health through the Obesity Strategy – Javed Khan’s Independent Review of Smoking and Dame Carol Black's Independent Review of Drugs. However, arguably the most harmful and legal drug, alcohol, remains unchallenged.
In November 2022, with the support of 42 cross-party colleagues across both Houses and over 50 leading health organisations, the Alcohol Health Alliance and I wrote to the Prime Minister calling for an Independent Review of Alcohol which will lead to an alcohol strategy.
An Independent Review of Alcohol would consider the role and impact of alcohol in society. It would probe everything from industry, advertising and cross-government departments including, Health and Social Care, Justice, Department of Work and Pensions and the Treasury.
The focus of this Review should be evidence-based interventions. There is already strong evidence behind the effectiveness of measures to reduce the affordability, promotion and availability of alcohol, such as alcohol taxes and a comprehensive restriction of alcohol advertising.
We know the cost of living crisis has led to more people drinking at harmful levels. The time to act is now.
We need to remove barriers to effective action, including the undue influence of corporate lobbyists on policy decisions.
The government must finally put public health first and commission an Independent Review of Alcohol that leads to an evidenced-based alcohol strategy.
Dan Carden is the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.
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