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02.12.16

PHE calls for minimum unit pricing to reduce alcohol harm

Introducing a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol could improve the health of the heaviest drinkers in the country, Public Health England (PHE) suggested as it published a review showing the damage increased levels of drinking are causing.

Sales of alcohol in England and Wales have increased by almost 50% since 1980. They peaked in 2008, but problems related to alcohol have continued to rise since then.

Over 10 million people in England drink at levels which would increase the risk of harm to their health. There are now over one million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year, half of which occur in the lowest three socioeconomic deciles.

Earlier this year, PHE found that alcohol-related hospital admissions have increased by 29% since 2008.

Professor Kevin Fenton, national director of health and wellbeing at PHE, said: “The harm alcohol causes is much wider than just on the individual drinker.

“Excessive alcohol consumption can harm children, wreck families, impact on workplace colleagues and can be a burden and drain on the NHS and economy.”

The report also warns that the economic burden of alcohol is substantial, with estimates placing the annual cost to be between 1.3% and 2.7% of annual GDP. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years.

The fact that younger people, who are more likely to be in work, are more affected means that more working years of life in England are lost to alcohol than the 10 most frequent cancer types combined.

PHE’s review said that implementing an MUP has been shown to be “a highly targeted measure” which would affect the heaviest drinkers and “have a negligible impact” on the price of alcohol in bars and restaurants. But it could lead to better health outcomes, reduce crime and generate more revenue for the Treasury. Cuts in alcohol duty since 2013 are thought to have cost the government £3.45bn.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, added: “The health harms of alcohol affect all sectors of society, but are felt most by the poorest and most vulnerable.

“All the evidence now points to MUP as one of the most effective potential ways to tackle these inequalities in harm. We are hopeful that this mounting evidence will be taken on board by government.”

The review also found that self-regulation is failing to stop the alcohol marketing agency from breaching guidelines in areas such as marketing to children.

It suggested that regulations such as watershed bans and online age verification filters might be needed, but found that there is not enough evidence of the effectiveness of these measures.

Dr Jo Bibby, director of strategy at the Health Foundation, said: “We would like to see government urgently use this evidence to put in place the robust strategy needed to reduce harm from alcohol and save lives.

“Despite the inevitable objections from the alcohol industry, creating a healthier alcohol environment requires bold action – including minimum unit pricing and reducing young people’s exposure to advertising.”

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