How far should the state step in to regulate the free market and alcohol? If a jumbo jet fully laden with passengers crashed over Britain every fortnight, drastic action would be taken, and that is what we are talking about—22,000 people die every year in Britain as a result of alcohol. The Office for National Statistics cites the figure of 8,790, but that excludes all the accidental deaths, the homicides, the impulsive suicides and the many victims of road traffic accidents. Alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions, including many cancers.
Some will argue that this is all about personal responsibility and that we should resist the interference of the nanny state, but how can the 705,000 children who live with an alcohol-dependent parent exercise personal responsibility? We have a blind spot when it comes to the destructive effect of alcohol. Yesterday, I spoke to Stephen Otter, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, who told me that the statistics for 2004-05 showed that about a third of violent crime in Devon and Cornwall was related to alcohol. Since then, the statistics have followed a steadily upward path and alcohol is now related to about half of such crime. The trend is increasing, so how do the victims of violent crime feel when we say that we should leave this to the market?
What about taxpayers? The cost of the epidemic is out of control. It is at least £20 billion, but if we look at the finer details of the impact on productivity, we will see that the evidence given to the Health Committee when it looked at this issue showed that the cost could be as high as £55 billion. At a time when the NHS has to make efficiency savings of £20 billion over the next four years, is it right that we are flushing down the drain at least £20 billion a year on alcohol?
The Secretary of State talks frequently about outcomes, so I would like to give some that I think he should look at. Forty per cent. to 70% of all accident and emergency admissions are related to alcohol. The impact on health inequalities is undeniable. The difference between the poorest and the wealthiest neighbourhoods in terms of average life expectancy is about seven years, and early deaths from alcohol-related liver disease are a significant contributor to that. Almost one in four deaths in young people is directly caused by alcohol. That means that every week 12 young people are losing their lives, which is a far higher figure than the number who die as a result of knife crime.
Positive outcomes could be achieved from a reduction in teenage pregnancies, as well as in educational failure and its impact and sexually transmitted diseases. The state has a duty to protect young people and take action. On personal responsibility, harmful drinking does not just affect the individual; it has a knock-on effect on all those around them when they leave a destructive trail in their wake.
If it were possible to solve this problem just through education and gentleman’s agreements with the drinks industry and supermarkets, I would say that we should go that way, but that approach has clearly failed. The fact is that when alcohol is too cheap, people die. That was as true in the 18th century with its gin craze as it is today. This, however, is a general debate on what should be in the alcohol strategy, so I do not want to dwell too long on pricing. Suffice to say that without action on pricing, I am afraid that nothing else will be as effective as it could be. Alcohol is no ordinary commodity and we should not treat it just through market forces.