Alcohol Strategy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 7th February 2012.

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Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Conservative, Totnes 11:00 am, 7th February 2012

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. EU legislation is getting in the way of an awful lot of the measures I would like to be introduced.

Returning to why education should not be in the hands of the drinks industry, I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to a problem that arose when the Drinkaware Trust introduced its safe drinking recommendations. It presented those recommendations not as a safe upper limit but a recommended daily amount, as if it was marketing them as a vitamin intake. There is a clear conflict of interest in having the drinks industry controlling education. Although I welcome much of the Drinkaware Trust’s work, I do not see the need for the drinks industry to be on the board and would like the Minister to comment on that if possible. Following the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, the clear message should be that people should take at least two alcohol-free days a week to protect themselves.

Turning to the health service, relatively few hospitals have a dedicated alcohol service. It is a shame that only 5.7% of dependent or harmful drinkers are able to access treatment compared with 67% of dependent or harmful drug users. There is a clear case for changing that. One third of people who are admitted to hospital with acute liver disease die immediately, and the mortality rate for that has remained unchanged for 15 years. They die without being able to be aware that they even had a problem in the first place.

I would like to make the case for having much better services for screening and early intervention because such an approach works. Some 12% of people who are given brief advice and are informed that they are developing harmful or hazardous drinking traits will significantly cut down or stop drinking. Such a scheme is highly cost-effective, and I would like it to be rolled out, particularly in casualty departments. All hospitals should have a seven-day acute nurse specialist to give brief advice and intervention. That approach should be rolled out further to GP surgeries through the quality and outcomes framework and should also be available in community pharmacies, so that we can let people have clear information and advice. As I say, principally, because such a scheme is evidence based and works.

Regarding people who already have a problem, it is time for all hospitals to have a dedicated alcohol specialist team and an assertive outreach team, particularly to help those revolving-door patients who come in and out of hospital repeatedly. They often have complex mental health needs and issues surrounding homelessness. Again, such an approach has a very strong evidence base and is cost-effective.

The law and order challenge for our police force is vast. May I pay tribute to the people who are at the sharp end of all this? Police officers, street pastors, casualty workers and ambulance staff bear the brunt of the problem. The police are making progress. I pay tribute to Devon and Cornwall police for its work. In my area, people who are picked up by the police can choose between a fixed penalty notice of £80 or attending a course run by Druglink. For those people who attend those courses, there is only a 2% offending rate. That is an example of something very positive that we should be moving forward with.

We should also carefully consider what has been happening in South Dakota in the USA, where they have introduced mandatory breath testing for those convicted of an alcohol-related offence. That has significantly reduced the prison population and has had an effect on domestic violence rates. It would be sensible to at least pilot that in this country to establish whether such a model could work here.

There is a strong case for reducing the drink-drive limit from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg, if for no other reason than for the sake of the 380 people who are killed every year on our roads and the more than 11,900 who are injured. Of course, we also need to give the police greater powers to breath test people.

What about the industry’s role? There is a role for industry in reducing product strength and I welcome those who have already taken action along that line. Crucially, business models should be changed, so that they are based on quality not quantity. The opinion is that that is what has had the greatest effect on the continent, where there have been significant falls in drinking levels because of the move away from drinking vast quantities of plonk towards drinking smaller quantities of quality product. That is something we could do here. I would like to see further work on the use of responsible locations in supermarket aisles and, as I have said, further progress on labelling.

I repeat that it is not the place or the responsibility of the drinks industry to define public health policy. There is a clear conflict of interest. It is time for us to follow an evidence-based approach built on medical advice and for there to be far less involvement with the drinks industry in dictating policy.

I have already been fortunate to lead a debate on alcohol taxation, so I will not repeat the points I made then. I hope that other hon. Members will give us advice on why the introduction of minimum pricing is compatible with EU legislation. I know that Caroline Lucas will do so. The fact that price influences behaviour is, beyond doubt, completely undeniable. There has recently been further evidence from British Columbia about the impact of minimum pricing, based on 20 years of experience. There has also been evidence from Scotland, where the change in pricing policies, particularly those inhibiting multi-buys, have caused a 14% fall in beer sales. I will conclude and allow other Members to contribute by saying that there is no such thing as a cheap drink, but we are all paying a very heavy price.