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Alcohol: Misuse

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In light of the British Medical Association’s report Alcohol Misuse: Tackling the UK Epidemic, what plans they have for tackling alcohol misuse.

My Lords, I welcome the BMA’s useful report. Tackling the culture of harmful and binge drinking is a priority for the Government, and we are implementing a comprehensive strategy. The report will encourage doctors to play the key role of identifying harmful drinking at an earlier stage.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, given that all the evidence shows that both availability and price of alcohol are the key factors in binge drinking, this is not so much a matter for doctors as for government. Will the Government now consider introducing new laws, as recommended by that report, to regulate promotional activities on alcohol and ensure that both licensed premises and off-licences no longer sell alcohol as loss leaders?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. The Government are working with the alcohol industry and other stakeholders to implement a strategy which includes a new public information campaign, an independent review of alcohol pricing and promotion, toughening enforcement for underage sales and helping more people who want to drink less. Reducing alcohol-related hospital admissions is a new measure of performance for the NHS. We believe that this will encourage more NHS investment to identify those most at risk and provide advice and treatment. However, this strategy is not about preaching to or hectoring people. It is important that people have the necessary information to make their own decisions about the health consequences.

My Lords, as the Government, through the Minister, have said that it is a priority to address this issue, is the Minister aware that in Ireland, where the price of alcohol is considerably higher than in the UK, the effect in reducing consumption has been absolutely zero? Should the Government therefore not now review the 24-hour drinking policy that they introduced, when the police report that more than 180,000 offences have taken place since that new law came on to the statute book?

My Lords, the noble Lord conflates two different points. On the price of alcohol, there is definitely increasing public concern that harmful drinking is fuelled by the sale of alcohol at heavily discounted prices and other promotional tactics. We currently lack comprehensive evidence on this issue and views are divided. The Department of Health has therefore commissioned an independent review of the relationship between pricing, promotion and harm, which will help to inform our understanding of this and our decisions on whether to take any action on the impact they have.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the rules on advertising alcoholic drinks, which the BMA report would also like to restrict, have recently been significantly tightened up, and that the latest survey by the Advertising Standards Authority, on whose council I sit, has showed a compliance rate of around 95 per cent? In the light of this, does she agree that advertising may not be so much to blame as the TV soaps and reality shows that use drunkenness and alcohol misuse as forms of entertainment?

My Lords, the Government need to look at both those things—they are not mutually exclusive—but we are not banning alcohol advertising without a very good reason. As the noble Baroness has said, there are tough rules on advertising, particularly to the under-18s, but the review of the interrelationship between alcohol pricing, promotion and harm will be reported on this summer, and it will include an examination of advertising in all its forms: TV, radio, above and below the line, sponsorship, and the internet. Depending on the review’s findings, the Government have made it clear that they are prepared, subject to public consultation, to consider new controls and, if necessary, legislation.

My Lords, when the Prime Minister took over last year, he undertook to implement vigorous action to curb the £20 billion of harm, including £7 billion to health alone, which alcohol was causing in England and Wales. Will the Government now review the perverse and irrational decision that was taken following the Cabinet Office’s interim analytical report of 2003, which showed that price and availability were the two main levers that could be used to curb consumption, and review their strategy so that these are incorporated into any decisions that the Government now take?

My Lords, we know that the review of the Licensing Act is due out soon. Speculation in the press over the weekend pre-empted some of the release of that review, but we must wait to see what happens. We also know that studies undertaken by Cardiff University and Liverpool University have found that accident and emergency attendance in relation to violent crime has fallen by 2 per cent since the introduction of the new regime in 2005.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Professor Oliver James and Dr Christopher Record in Newcastle-upon-Tyne have drawn attention recently to a frightening, indeed horrifying, increase in the incidence of liver disease and other effects of alcohol abuse in young people in the north-eastern region? What action are the Government taking to persuade the police and the owners of licensed premises to reduce underage drinking and drinking in young people?

My Lords, we fully share the noble Lord’s concern, and we are determined to reduce the harm caused to young people by alcohol misuse. We are committed to educating young people on the very real harm that it can cause. Since 2006, we have introduced new powers to penalise licensed premises that persistently sell alcohol to under-18s. We have introduced new powers to direct individuals to leave an area and prohibit their return. We have focused binge-drinking initiatives on four of the national hotspots, and at this moment 720 young people have been referred to advice sessions about safer drinking. Early studies show that reoffending rates are down by 50 per cent, and we are currently rolling out this initiative to 10 new areas. The hard hitting communications campaign that is being developed will also be aimed specifically at young people.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the Government are undertaking a further review of the efficacy of different measures to curb excessive alcohol consumption when only a few years ago the World Health Organisation carried out a comprehensive worldwide review of effective policies? The WHO concluded that curbs on marketing and restrictions on availability and price are the most effective measures to curb excessive alcohol consumption, and that warning labels and information campaigns are ineffective. Why is there a need to review the evidence again when it has been reviewed thoroughly by an international body?

My Lords, the WHO framework has informed much of the work that the Government are doing. The Government’s strategy is firmly based in monitoring what will happen this year. If the right results are not produced in terms of advertising, the Government will consider legislation.