photograph Newcastle addiction conference calls for alcohol action

An influential group of international addiction experts have called for the banning of all alcohol advertising and the introduction of minimum pricing.

The first ALICE RAP policy brief on alcohol policy will make the case for these measures, as the full extent of the cost of alcohol addiction is revealed.

One in eight deaths in the UK between 15-64 years old is due to alcohol and the problem costs each of us £240 a year. Brits  and other Europeans drink more than twice the world’s average and alcohol represents the number one addiction problem in the UK today, greater than any other drug or gambling. It costs the NHS over £2.7 billion every year.

The international conference being held in Newcastle University aims to tackle the massive financial and social problems caused by addiction to alcohol, and other drugs and behaviours.

Professor Eileen Kaner, Director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University who will speak at the conference, said: “Alcohol costs the UK so much in so many ways, both in financial and social impacts. Governments need to have a clear and un-biased view of the most up-to-date research on alcohol problems and be bolder about tackling some of the root causes such as overly cheap alcohol and irresponsible marketing that encourages heavy drinking. This conference will hopefully help inform the debate and highlight key measures Governments should be taking to improve public health  and safety around drinking behaviour.” 

Alcohol is not just killing us, but costing us too and it is a problem across Europe as well as the UK. Alcohol costs society about £240 for each of us per year through reduced productivity and in costs to the health system, the welfare system and criminal justice systems.

Scarce public funds are being stretched to cover these various costs: over-burdened health services to treat alcohol dependence and some 250 serious health problems caused by alcohol, such as cancer and liver disease; the costs to society and criminal justice system of drunken violence and accidents; the costs to the welfare system of helping people whose lives have been ruined by alcohol to find their feet and start living again.

European societies are also paying in terms of lost productivity from poor work performance of individuals with alcohol problems, not to mention those worried about them. These are costs we could well do without in times of economic downturn. In addition, new research findings suggest that drinkers are drinking far more than they enjoy, not to mention more than their bodies can cope with. In short, Europe has a drinking problem.

The ALICE RAP policy brief, ‘Alcohol – the neglected addiction’, provides much needed scientific input to the discussion, which has long been dominated by the alcohol industry lobbyists  rather than scientists and health professionals who are on the sharp end of dealing with alcohol problems.

However, evidence-based alcohol policy could break the negative pattern of harmful alcohol consumption and costs. Recent scientific evidence shows that certain aspects of alcohol policy can successfully help whole populations to reduce alcohol consumption, and heavy drinkers in particular, and thereby reduce the damage reaped by alcohol. Economic models indicate that these policy options are also cost-effective.

The most effective policy approaches, and also the fairest and most targeted, are those which do nudge people towards a lower consumption of grams of alcohol by moderating price and availability and by banning alcohol advertising. The minimum unit price proposed by the UK government is supported by research which shows that it brings about highest reductions in consumption amongst those who are most harming their health with alcohol (i.e. those who most need to cut down). Regulations on alcohol selling environments which modify availability can also encourage people to drink more moderately and result in better individual and population health, wealth and happiness. For example, reducing the number of outlets, the days and hours of sale, and the number of grams of alcohol in a packaged drink saves lives.

Finally, the ALICE RAP brief calls for a ban on alcohol advertising in all forms of mass media (print, broadcast and on-line). Studies show that alcohol adverts act sub-consciously, increasing the amount drunk and pushing people into a more harmful bracket of alcohol consumption. Alcohol advertising also acts as an unfortunate trigger to relapse for an important number of people who are trying to recover from alcohol problems, and, in addition, is now being found to have an impact on young people starting to drink. All of these facts explain, to some extent, the large amounts of money put into advertising by companies, and the effort that the alcohol industry has put into lobbying such a ban.

Overall, European populations stand to reap huge benefits from science-based alcohol policy, in terms of health, wealth and well-being. And, according to the network of scientists in ALICE RAP, the time is ripe for this change.

published on: 24th May 2012