Last night’s Panorama (Dying for a drink – BBC1 20:30 BST) was a shocking expose on the state of alcoholism in the UK –
and in particular, amongst our young people. It was, perhaps, a little unsurprising to those of us who live in the nation’s cities but the statistics should shock the country into action. Alcohol related A&E admissions hit one million last year – think of that as adding the entire populations of Bristol, Cardiff and Coventry together and you will be able to visualise that
figure. 7,000 patients aged 20-39 were admitted to hospital with alcohol-related liver disease. And people in their 20s are dying as a result of alcohol related conditions.
There will always be those who drink to excess but Sir Ian Gilmore rightly points out that the big drivers for the amount people drink are “price, marketing and availability”. In real terms, alcoholic drinks are now 75 per cent cheaper in the shops than they were in 1980 – and easily available from any supermarket, corner-shop or even some newsagents. Whilst cigarette smoking has been vilified almost to the point of obsession, consumption of alcohol (a far more dangerous legal drug) is simply accepted as “part of our culture” and continues to be marketed as something “trendy”, “sexy” or “exotic”.
Successive Governments have played their part in creating an environment where alcohol abuse can thrive. Laws banning the consumption of alcohol in “public places not intended for the consumption of alcohol” have been so diluted as to become unenforceable, unless those doing the drinking are perceived by the police as committing “anti-social behaviour
crime”. The relaxation of licensing laws that allow our pubs to open all day may have exacerbated the situation as well – although this is debateable as the large numbers of pubs and clubs that have closed since the smoking ban and economic downturn seems to be having little impact on excessive alcohol consumption. But politicians are amongst the drinks industry’s best clients and with beer sales contributing more than £5bn in duty and VAT and alcohol contributing nearly £15bn in total to UK tax revenues, there is little appetite in the Palace of Westminster for reducing consumption.
If we are serious about tackling people “dying for a drink”, we must at least press for cigarette style graphic images and warnings to be included on the packaging for alcoholic drinks, together with the banning of advertising that glorifies drinking. These steps are believed to have had a huge impact on cigarette consumption and there is no reason to
expect that it would not have a similar impact when applied to alcoholic drinks. But taking no action to tackle such a serious problem is simply not an option.