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Public Health England: Alcohol

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect Public Health England to publish its independent evidence-based report on alcohol.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response and I look forward to the report. Is he aware that the latest statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that hospital admissions due to alcohol-related illnesses are continuing to rise and are now more than 1 million, that the number of deaths arising from alcohol continues to go up, and that the cost to the NHS of alcohol-related problems is more than £2.5 billion? Given the difficulties that the NHS faces in funding itself at the moment, given that the economy may slow down as a result of Brexit so that less funding is available and given that we heard today about the prospect of another doctors’ strike, are the Government prepared to review the plan for the NHS to which the noble Lord so frequently refers? It may need to be changed completely, so what is plan B?

My Lords, that goes slightly beyond the Question on the Order Paper. The Government are committed between now and 2020 to putting £10 billion of new money in real terms into the NHS and we have a plan to deliver on that. Clearly, if the economy changes to a great extent, we will have to keep that in mind.

My Lords, the outside broadcast of the recent England v Wales football match showed alcohol marketing every 72 seconds. How does that help public health? Also, why do the Government permit the marketing of alcohol to reach audiences below the legal drinking age?

This is an important issue which the PHE review will take into account. That review should be published before the end of the year and I am sure that we will take action accordingly.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The UK has one of the lowest weekly recommended maximum alcohol intake amounts in Europe. For example, the Spanish recommended maximum weekly alcohol intake is more than double that of the UK. Does my noble friend have a view on whether he thinks our limit is too low or that other countries have theirs set too high?

My Lords, the CMO’s guidelines are 14 units of alcohol per week, which is based on 67 different independent systematic reviews of what constitutes low-risk drinking. That is the best advice that we have available to us and it is entirely up to people whether they take it or not.

My Lords, the Chief Medical Officer famously said recently, “When I reach for a glass of wine, I think of cancer”. Does the Minister seriously think that exaggerations of that kind actually help the public perception of alcohol or mean that as a consequence our experts are completely ignored?

My Lords, as I said earlier, I think that the CMO’s guidelines are based on independent scientific advice. How that advice is communicated to the public is a different issue and the CMO is currently consulting on how we should express that scientific advice in ways that will have the maximum impact so that the public will take due notice of it.

My Lords, back in 2011 the Scottish Government passed legislation which meant that there was no financial advantage in multibuy alcohol purchases so that each can or whatever it was would be the same price. That has discouraged the bulk buying of alcohol and as a consequence has reduced levels of harmful drinking. Have Her Majesty’s Government considered a similar law, and if not, why not?

I apologise to the right reverend Prelate, but I missed the first part of his question. He is perfectly entitled to repeat the question, or if not, perhaps I may write to him after this session of Question Time.

The legislation passed by the Scottish Government in 2011 means that there is no financial advantage in the bulk buying of alcohol; each can is the same price. That has discouraged people from buying large amounts of alcohol and has reduced the level of alcohol dependency.

I cannot plead that I did not hear the question again, but I am going to have to say that I do not know the answer, so I shall write to the right reverend Prelate later.

My Lords, my understanding is that junior doctors have rejected the Government’s final offer by 58% to 42%, which is quite a large majority. Will the noble Lord make a Statement tomorrow in your Lordships’ House on the consequences of this?

On the issue of the limit of 14 units of alcohol per week, I looked at the Department of Health’s website this morning and although it talks about the risks of alcohol, it does not actually specify the additional risks of, for instance, keeping the maximum units for men at 18 per week? The lay summary of the principal expert advice and research given to the Chief Medical Officer again does not quantify the risks. It states simply that there is a raised risk. Does the Minister accept that if we are not prepared to give the public the real facts, it is unlikely that the advice of the Chief Medical Officer will be taken seriously? I wonder if he can have a look at this.

On the first issue, I cannot commit to giving a Statement tomorrow—that depends on decisions elsewhere. Certainly, if there is a Statement in the House of Commons I would expect it to be repeated in this House. On the other issue, the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines are based on real facts. The last time the CMO issued guidelines was, I think, in 1995. Between then and now the scientific link between alcohol and cancer has changed, so she feels that it is right to put the facts into the public domain. As I said, we are consulting on how we word those guidelines to the public.