21 September 2009

Haunted by the spirits

After all the hype about drugs, a new report reveals alcohol addiction in Britain to be a far greater problem.

It’s the oldest drug on the market. It wreaks far more harm than newer drugs but receives far less media attention. It predates the Greeks and Romans, who consumed copious quantities of alcohol, and is assumed to have been discovered by accident by early man when fermentation occurred in sugar-containing fruit left exposed to a warm atmosphere. The full extent of alcohol's harm was set out yesterday in a new report from Alcohol Concern: about one in 20 people is dependent on the drug compared to one in 45 who is hooked on all other legal and illegal drugs (including ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine, heroin and acid, as well as tranquillisers and sleeping pills).

The extent of alcohol damage is daunting. It is second only to that of tobacco as a cause of premature death, but unlike tobacco, causes much wider social problems than mere medical ailments. Violence is perhaps its most pernicious by-product with 40 per cent of all domestic violence involving alcohol, a third of child abuse cases, and 25 per cent of accidents at work. An estimated 14 million working days are lost each year due to alcohol-related problems. Absenteeism and poor work performance due to the drug are estimated to cost industry £2 billion a year.

The link between violent crime and alcohol has a long history with recent research suggesting drink is involved in 65 per cent of murders and 75 per cent of stabbings. Even more injuries and deaths are caused by drink-drive accidents which kill 600 people a year and cause thousands of injuries.

The accidents do not end on the road. About 25 per cent of drownings and 40 per cent of deaths in fire are put down to drink. One in four acute male hospital admissions is related to alcohol. Young men are particularly vulnerable to alcohol related violence. There are 5,000 "glassings" annually, in which a smashed beer glass is used as a dangerous and disfiguring weapon. All told, there are about 33,000 alcohol-related deaths every year in Britain.

And yet, as every wine buff knows, alcohol can also be health enhancing. Medical studies have suggested that middle aged males drinking up to 50 glasses of wine (not beer or spirits) or post menopausal women 35 glasses , a week, reduce their risk of premature death. Hence the challenge: how do you achieve a sensible drinking strategy?

In their new report, Measures For Measures, Alcohol Concern sketches out a strategy which has won the support of the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson. As Sir Donald, who is now president of Alcohol Concern, declares: "The dire significance of alcohol misuse sometimes gets lost between the well-known, fatal effects of smoking and the social consequences of illegal drugs."

The report notes that ministers have already recognised some responsibility by including the reduction in the number of people drinking above risky levels (50 units for men, 35 for women) as a target for their preventive health strategy set out in Health of the Nation. Currently, 6 per cent of men (1.4 million) and 2 per cent of women (500,000) are drinking at levels likely to damage their health. Where ministers have fallen short is having no strategy to implement measures needed to reduce and prevent alcohol-related harm.

The place to begin is with young people, where there is an increase in both average consumption (now equivalent to three and a half pints per week for 11 to 15-year-olds who drink) and frequency of drink (17 per cent of the age group drink regularly). Current school circulars on drug prevention concentrate almost exclusively on drug issues with little focus on teaching children about how to handle alcohol. The report notes the development and marketing of the new "alcopops" drinks. "While not solely responsible for the level of consumption among under 18s, alcopops are exacerbating an already worrying situation, while calling into question the ethics of the drinks industry's strategies to sell its products."

The report suggests alcopops should be subject to duty levels which price them out of reach of children and teenagers. It also wants the present voluntary code for marketing alcopops replaced with a statutory one and a 1 per cent levy placed on the industry's £190 million advertising and marketing budget to finance sensible drinking campaigns. Consumers need more information about the benefits and harm. The sensible drinking message has switched from weekly to daily intakes with benchmarks of up to three units for women and four for men. A unit is a glass of wine, a half pint of beer or a single measure of spirits.

The report calls for a reduction in the permitted blood alcohol Iimit for drivers (from 80mgs of alcohol per l00 mls of blood to 50mgs), high profile random breath testing, and warns against any reduction in tax levels. It calls for more training for people in the drinks trade, and wants an independent body do research into alcohol consumption.

It believes the Ministerial Group on Alcohol Misuse should be re-activated because policy needs to be co-ordinated across a range of government departments including health (treatment), home office (crime and licensing), transport (drink-driving), education (young people), employment (work-based problems), treasury (taxation), trade and industr.y (costs to business) and consumer affairs (regulation of the alcohol industry).

Eric Appleby, Alcohol Concern's director, called on the new government to place a national alcohol strategy at the top of its priority list.