Before you put that glass to your lips, just remember that this is Alcohol Awareness Week. Just stop and think about the huge impact alcohol is having on the health and wellbeing of the nation – and perhaps on you too. Some good, some bad, some ugly.
Most of us enjoy a drink from time to time. It helps us unwind. It breaks down barriers. It helps things go with a swing. Trouble is, all too often, what unwinds is someone’s life. What breaks down is their relationships. What swings is a right hook to the jaw.
The personal, social and economic cost of alcohol-related injuries, illness and general mayhem is mounting by the minute. As our consumption rises, so does the casualty rate. About 9,000 deaths a year, tens of thousands of hospital admissions, countless A&E and GP attendances. According to Government estimates, the NHS bill was £2.7 billion at 2006-07 prices, and in 2008 the total cost of harm from alcohol across the whole UK economy was between £17.7 and £25.1 billion per year. That’s mega.
Everyone knows there’s a booze culture in Britain – not just among our young people. In fact the UK, led by Scotland, is rapidly becoming the booze capital of Europe.
But it’s only relatively recently that the real cost of booze has begun to impinge on the public consciousness. We’ve all seen the CCTV footage of staggering, threatening, puking young revellers trashing our city centres. We all know about the horrific toll of drink-drive accidents and alcohol-related domestic violence. But perhaps we’re less aware of the rising tide of alcohol-related liver disease, such as cirrhosis, affecting younger and younger drinkers. Or the links between alcohol and unwanted pregnancy. Or the increase in alcohol-linked depression and dementia.
Much of Britain’s booze culture has been driven by an unholy alliance of the drinks industry, with its sophisticated marketing techniques, and the ‘off-trade’ (mainly supermarkets), with its deeply discounted ultra-cheap loss-leader drinks. Up till now, the ‘alcohol lobby’, which wields considerable power with HM Treasury and influential politicians of all parties, has managed to fend off attempts to use legislation to clip its wings. They argue that self-imposed voluntary codes to restrict the way drinks are advertised and marketed are working well. They say young people are not being specifically targeted, and that the industry is no longer using cool, sexy, potent or otherwise glamorous images to promote drink. And they say the issue of cheap offers should be taken up with the retailers, not with them. The retailers in turn say they are just responding to public demand.
But attitudes are beginning to shift, and I believe we are reaching the same sort of tipping point that we did a few years ago with the issue of smoke-free legislation. Of course, unlike smoking, alcohol isn’t all bad. But the public and the politicians are hardening their views and talking more about tougher action – like mandatory restrictions on advertising and marketing and banning the easy availability of ultra-cheap drink.
And as with the smoking ban Scotland is leading the way. A government-sponsored bill is currently going through the Scottish Parliament that would bring in a minimum price per unit of alcohol, together with a range of other restrictions. I don’t think England will be far behind once the election is out of the way.
Like fire, alcohol is a good servant but bad master. It is available far too cheaply. For too long we have let its promotion and marketing run virtually unfettered. Drinking excessively is now an almost essential part of being young. The burden of ill-health this leads to is horrific. As a society, it’s time to call time on our booze culture and the drinks trade. We must bring in clear standardised labelling of alcohol content, mandatory restrictions on promotion and marketing, and a minimum price per unit to do away with ultra-cheap deals once and for all.