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Health: Alcohol

Volume 771: debated on Thursday 12 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to alert the public to the dangers of alcohol and its causal links with hypertension, depression, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

My Lords, the new UK Chief Medical Officer’s advice on low-risk drinking helps people understand how they can reduce their risks from alcohol consumption. Public Health England has recently launched One You, a marketing programme providing personalised feedback on alcohol and other potentially harmful behaviours. In primary care, alcohol-risk assessments are offered to all patients registering with a new GP and 3.5 million people have had one as part of their NHS health check.

I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer and for the efforts which I know he makes on this topic. Is he aware that we now have 9 million people suffering from hypertension, that the number of people with depression has doubled since 2005 and that the evidence now quite clearly shows that 62 illnesses are related to alcohol? Given the amount of money which the drinks industry spends on advertising seeking to persuade people to drink more, is it not time that the Government start to undertake some important work with a publicity campaign gently to persuade people to drink less and live a better, longer and happier life?

My Lords, the new guidelines published by the CMO are very clear about how much alcohol should be drunk and the implications it has for health. I do not know whether the noble Lord has been on to the One You website or has downloaded the drink tracker app. The information is out there. A campaign is being conducted by Public Health England, and we are making some progress.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that introducing the evidence-based minimum unit price for alcohol would send a strong message from the Government about their concerns about the health dangers of alcohol? I should draw the attention of the House to my interests shown in the register.

Public Health England is conducting an evidence review of the harm done by alcohol, and minimum unit pricing will be an aspect that is addressed. To express a personal view, if we are going to address alcohol consumption by increasing the price, is it best that the benefit of that should go to the drinks companies through charging higher prices, or is it better that it should go to the Government through taxation? That is a question that the House might want to ponder.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that compelling public information is key? Does he recall that the last time we talked about the sugar tax I recommended that manufacturers of sugary products should label them showing how much exercise would be required to burn off the contents? Is he aware that that is exactly what the Drinkaware website does? Would it not deter noble Lords, when considering ordering a glass of wine in the Bishops’ Bar, if they knew that they would have to run up and down Whitehall for 16 minutes in order to burn it off?

I am sure we will all be following in the noble Baroness’s wake when we do that. It is worth making the point that one of the benefits that came out of the responsibility deal, which I know not everyone in this House thinks was successful, is that the labelling on alcoholic products has got much better.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the risk of dementia in later life is now one of the public’s principal concerns, and of course it is established that there is a relationship between harmful alcohol use and the risk of alcohol-related dementia and Korsakoff’s disease. The One You website does not readily click through to give that information so that people’s concern about dementia is something that they understand can be related to the harmful use of alcohol.

My Lords, that is an interesting point, which I will draw to the attention of Public Health England. If that click-through is not clear, it should be. Since the Blackfriars Bridge agreement, PHE has been working with Alzheimer’s UK to do more research into analysing the impact of alcohol on dementia.

My Lords, I commend the Minister on his courtesy in answering Questions in your Lordships’ House. Perhaps one or two of his colleagues might learn from that example. The logic of the Chief Medical Officer’s position is that essentially all alcohol is harmful. Is that the position of the Government?

Thinking very quickly, my Lords, our position is that alcohol is not safe but it is low risk depending on how you drink. It is a low-risk activity at a level of about 14 units spread evenly across the week. I am sure that the noble Lord will adhere strictly to that guideline.

In the review to which the Minister referred, is the cost of accidents through alcohol-related driving and road accidents being costed? Is consideration being given to lowering the drink-driving limit, perhaps even to almost zero, as in some countries?

My Lords, traffic accidents caused by alcohol have been costed. I cannot give the noble Baroness that figure today but I will write to her with it. I do not believe that we are currently reviewing the alcohol limit for driving, although I know that in Scotland it has recently been reduced.

My Lords, have the Government considered using the tax system to encourage people to drink lower-alcohol drinks?

That is a very good question. I do not have the answer to hand but I would like to think about that and write to the noble Lord. As part of the responsibility deal that was done with the industry in 2010, there has been a significant increase in lower-alcohol drinks, but I will have to come back to the noble Lord on that issue.