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Alcohol strategy is short on targets and ambitions, MPs told

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e2840 (Published 18 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2840
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

The government’s alcohol strategy to tackle binge drinking and introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol lacks targets and is not ambitious enough, say alcohol experts.

Witnesses at the first oral evidence session of the parliamentary health select committee’s new inquiry into the government’s alcohol plans said the government’s strategy launched last month was welcome in many ways but did not go far enough.

At the evidence session on 17 April, alcohol experts said there was too little emphasis in the strategy on the health impacts of alcohol and how treatment for people with a drinking problem can be improved.

Under the alcohol strategy, published last month by the Home Office, there are plans to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol, give stronger powers to local areas to control density of licensed premises, and work with the alcohol industry to provide clearer information on unit and calorie content.

MPs on the health select committee asked whether the witnesses thought it was right that this strategy was being led by the Home Office rather than the Department of Health.

Eric Appleby, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Concern, giving evidence, said of the strategy: “It could have gone further in terms of the issue of treatment, but as to the location of the strategy, the key thing for us is that there is a strategy that has some teeth and will have an impact. We are reasonably relaxed about where it is located as long as it does the job that it sets out to do.”

Fellow witness Ian Gilmore, Royal College of Physicians special adviser on alcohol and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, agreed saying: “For the first time it does accept the evidence of what the main drivers of the alcohol problems we are seeing in society are—particularly, price, availability and marketing.

“Clearly, it is stronger in solutions in some of those areas than others. It does lack specific targets and ambition in some areas. The areas around marketing are weaker and I would like to have seen a lot more said around treatment services.

“I am really pleased that the alcohol strategy has acknowledged that treatment of people with alcohol problems does work, but the strategy does not go far enough in saying on how to improve that treatment.”

MPs asked how strong the evidence base was to support the argument for minimum unit pricing of alcohol.

Alan Brennan of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, University of Sheffield, which researched the potential impact of minimum alcohol unit pricing, said: “From a public health evidence perspective, the evidence is absolutely, completely overwhelming that if you increase price, people drink less alcohol.”

Gilmore argued that behaviour and culture had to be changed, saying: “We would like to change the culture, but price changes culture and it’s been that differential between on-trade and off trade that has driven us from a nation 10-20 years ago that drank in pubs to one that drinks at home because it’s cheaper. We can change culture by levers such as price.”

MPs asked whether the structural changes under the current NHS reforms—particularly on public health—would have a detrimental effect on alcohol policy.

Professor Gilmore said: “With the major changes in the NHS and public health going into local government . . . there is bound to be a risk that alcohol will fall through the gap both in preventative terms and in treatment.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2840

Footnotes