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Health: Alcohol Abuse

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to produce an effective strategy for dealing with alcohol abuse in 2020.

My Lords, we are working to reduce alcohol-related harms with the NHS long-term plan, the prevention Green Paper, support for children of alcohol-dependent parents and action to tackle alcohol-related violent crime. Together, this work constitutes an effective package to address alcohol abuse. We are not planning a stand-alone strategy.

My Lords, I am grateful for the reply but not its content. It is very disappointing. Last year the Government were moved to produce a strategy on drugs, which hopefully will be effective. However, the problems with drugs are minimal compared to the problems with alcohol. Does the Minister recall that in 2011, the coalition Government produced a widely welcomed strategy on alcohol? It fell apart in 2015, primarily because the Government could not carry the drinks industry with them. We had a responsible deal which proved to be irresponsible. Are we not going to face the same problems again? Unless the Government bring the threads together to produce a strategy with real teeth, nothing will change.

We now have in place a wide-ranging approach that negates the need for a separate, stand-alone alcohol strategy. We have announced a new addictions strategy and will roll out the electronic monitoring of alcohol abstinence requirements for those whose offending is fuelled by alcohol.

My Lords, research conducted by the University of Sheffield estimated that reintroducing the alcohol duty escalator, which increases alcohol duty annually by 2% above inflation, would save 4,710 lives and prevent more than 260,000 crimes in England by 2032. Would the Minister consider discussing the wider impacts of alcohol duty with the Chancellor before the March Budget?

Public Health England is monitoring how minimum-unit pricing has worked in Scotland and considering the impact of such a policy, which is similar to what the noble Baroness is talking about.

My Lords, all the evidence shows that when people have the right information, they make better choices. Most people are not aware, for example, that a slice of cake has the same number of calories as a glass of wine. All food and drink products except alcohol must have nutritional information on the packaging. Given that these are empty calories, and given the rise in obesity and related diseases, do the Government have any proposals to change this?

Under EU regulations, companies do not have to put the calorie content on any drinks with an alcohol volume above 1.2%. I utterly agree with my noble friend that, if people knew how many calories they were consuming in just a glass of wine, they might think twice about how many glasses of wine or other drinks to have. A fact for today is that some canned cocktails contain the equivalent of six Krispy Kreme doughnuts’ worth of calories.

My Lords, 20 people a day die as a direct result of alcohol and 24,000 a year die where alcohol was a factor. Does the fact that the Home Office is responding to this Question about an effective strategy for dealing with alcohol abuse mean that the Government regard this as a matter for which the Home Office is the lead department, rather than it being a health issue for which the Department of Health and Social Care should take the lead? Why is the Home Office responding to this Question, rather than the Department of Health?

The noble Lord makes a valid point. Alcohol harm has a cross-government response, involving departments such as health, education and the Home Office. If we do not work together, we will diminish our responsibilities as a Government. In the troubled families programme, which is led by MHCLG, alcohol and substance abuse contribute to an awful lot of the problems in some of the families it deals with.

My Lords, I was going to ask almost exactly the same question. Misuse of alcohol and drugs is often the result of suffering and hurt in people’s lives, which is an issue of health and welfare, not of Home Office enforcement. What are the Government doing to improve people’s well-being, tackle poverty and discrimination, and address the causes of substance misuse, rather than simply the symptoms?

I will try to answer the question differently. The noble Lord points to the wide variety of harms that alcohol causes—the economic cost is something like £21 billion a year. We can see the involvement of alcohol abuse when looking at domestic violence—later this year, we will be considering the domestic abuse Bill—and the effect it has on children. The children of alcoholic parents must suffer terribly, and of course poverty is one of the effects of alcohol.

My Lords, I am pleased that the sobriety scheme is being rolled out, but it would help to hear a timeline for it. People may be aware of one benefit of the sobriety scheme. It came from South Dakota in America, where district attorneys, sick of seeing people die on the roads, introduced compulsory testing every day for a year. It led to a huge reduction in the number of people killed on the roads, but also the amount of domestic violence because, when the drunk drivers got home, they had been assaulting their partners. We experimented with this in the Met and it worked well, but I am concerned that the certainty of outcome is not as clear in our scheme because, should someone fail the test, we move them to the courts rather than insist on one day’s imprisonment. Will the Minister update us on the scheme and say whether we are prepared to look again at the penalty imposed at the conclusion of a positive test?

I am afraid that I do not have an update on the scheme for the noble Lord, but I concur with everything he said. I will write to him with an update and place a copy of the letter in the Library.