Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:21 pm on 18 October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 12:21, 18 October 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for tabling the Question. It is a very important topic facing our society, and causes more and more distress, not less and less.

I hope that the Government will consult the professionals who deal day in day out with the outcome of problem drinking as well as consulting those who are looking into the underlying causes of the binge and dangerous-drinking epidemics that we are now in.

Our city centres are given over to alcohol fuelled revelry on Friday and Saturday nights—many cities have closed their centres to traffic because the police can control the crowds more easily and try to minimise the accident risk. What do we know is happening? At peak times, as has been said, up to 70 per cent of admissions to accident and emergency units are related to alcohol consumption. It is true that Professor Touquet's Paddington alcohol test is incredibly useful because it builds on that teachable moment, but it is also a sad fact that there are not adequate numbers of alcohol counsellors to then deal with the problems identified.

Many of those who attend are not there with trivial injuries, such as falling off the pavement and twisting an ankle. Every year young people fall under Tube trains and die. Many are bright students on a night out. I expect that the Minister will tell us that road deaths are down—they are—but they are still too high. Why do we tolerate 80mg/100ml blood levels when 50 mg/100ml would be safer and easier to understand? We could even have a simple rule: that "Don't drink and drive" means do not drink—no drink. It would be easier to understand and clearer for all. As a social drinker myself it would be easier to have a clear rule of having soft drinks if I have the car keys.

The catalogue of deaths is huge. Every day 23 people die from alcohol-related causes in England and Wales, which is more that the total number of people dying from MRSA, cancer of the breast and cancer of the cervix put together. Yesterday I was in York and heard of two students who died recently in alcohol-fuelled accidents. One drowned because he fell into the river and the other died from a head injury caused by falling over when drunk. They were young students having just gone up to university with their lives ahead of them. Make no mistake, this is a story repeated time and again across the nation in our cities and universities.

Every weekend young people are beaten up in city centres around the country and left maimed for life. Some do not survive their injuries. The total cost of alcohol misuse to the health service has been estimated at at least £1.7 billion a year. In 2004 in England, 38 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women in the age group 16 to 64 had an alcohol use disorder. That is over a quarter of that population, equivalent to about 8.2 million people.

What has this done to the nation's economy? The Government's own data reveal that an annual cost through lost productivity as a result of alcohol misuse is at least £6.4 billion per annum, with up to 17 million working days lost through alcohol-related absence. The research evidence shows that mental functioning in those who have drunk heavily in the preceding 24 hours is seriously impaired, so even those who make it into work are not functioning properly.

It has often been said that 0drinking alcohol is a matter of personal choice—indeed, it is. The trouble is that the third-party damage caused by alcohol is not a matter of choice. Around half of all violent crimes—1.2 million violent incidents—are linked to alcohol misuse annually. Around a third—360,000—of domestic violence incidents are linked to alcohol misuse. If you are the child who has been hit, or the battered partner, that was not your choice. The cost of crime and anti-social behaviour linked to alcohol misuse is £7.3 billion annually and no one chooses to be the victim of a crime.

One could say that if you are informed and still drink, then you have brought the cirrhosis and other diseases on yourself. But alcohol is an addictive drug, and relatively cheap to buy. We know that the amount of alcohol consumed by girls aged between 11 and 13 has increased by 83 per cent in the six years 2000-06 while, for boys, consumption has gone up by 43 per cent during the same period. One million children have alcohol-addicted parents.

Ask youngsters why they binge drink, as I have been doing in preparation for this debate, and they tell you "Peer pressure": the pressure to be seen to have a good time. Many admit they feel awful, sick and unwell but they feel more miserable if they feel they have no friends. So they go with the crowd, fall to the peer pressure and play those drinking games with the drink on the table. The one who is not functioning well, of course, ends up losing and therefore downing the drink. They get plastered and then, soon, hooked.

It is then a way of life to prove that they are cool and having a good time. They run into debt, they function less well, many get injured or harm others and a few die. Among those who get arrested for criminal damage, 35 per cent of prisoners think they have an alcohol problem and 46 per cent believe that alcohol was a factor driving their offending behaviour.

Advertisers go right up to the line. Look at advertisements for alcohol: they make it look as if it is going to be really fun to down that vodka, those spirits, as if you will somehow feel good. They do not tell you that you are going to feel awful and might harm the people nearest to you.

What are we doing about it? The Government announced a planned £3.2 million on alcohol management initiatives. That figure is not to be sniffed at, but welcomed. We have Professor Drummond's study on alcohol screening and brief intervention pilots, known as SIPS. However, I hope that the Government are not going to put everything on hold waiting for the results of some of these studies to come through and that they are not going to be used as stalling tactics. The evidence is already there. We know things need to be done, and we know what works. The Paddington alcohol test is a clear example.

The key determinants of alcohol consumption have been identified as price, prevailing social culture and accessibility. The price is too low relative to other costs in our society. The prevailing social culture is that binge drinking is "cool", that you are somehow a better, more fun person if you go out and get smashed out of your mind on a Friday and Saturday night as a young adult.

Lastly, on accessibility, can we really afford not to consider putting the genie of unrestricted licensing hours back in the bottle? I hope that the Government will consult on this piece of their own legislation, among all the other things to be consulted on.