Doctors writing in this week's Christmas issue of the BMJ call on the government to introduce tougher measures to reduce alcohol related harm.
Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians and Nick Sheron, a liver specialist at Southampton University Hospital argue that measures favoured by the government and the alcohol industry - namely education and public information - have not generally been shown to change drinking behaviour or to reduce harm.
AdvertisementInstead proven measures, such as increasing the price of alcohol, banning alcohol advertising, and reducing the availability of alcohol, should be considered.
Alcohol is certainly a major health problem, they write. The Cabinet Office reported up to 150,000 hospital admissions and 15-22,000 deaths overall in 2003, with an 18% increase in deaths directly attributable to alcohol between 2002 and 2005, and more people dying from alcohol related causes than from breast and cervical cancer, and MRSA combined.
So do we have a duty to seek to reduce the health burden to society from alcohol or is this giving in to the 'nanny state' they ask?
They point out that damage to third parties from exposure to alcohol misuse dwarfs that from smoking. For example, drinking alcohol is a factor in over half of violent crimes and one third of domestic violence.
Furthermore, evidence shows that the most effective and cost effective measure is to increase the price of alcohol. Between 1980 and 2003 the price of alcohol increased by 24%, but disposable income increased by 91%, making alcohol 54% more affordable in 2003 than in 1980.
To suggest, as producers and retailers do, that increasing the price of alcohol would not reduce alcohol related harm goes against not only the evidence but also the fundamental principles of marketing, they argue.
Banning alcohol advertising and restricting opportunities to purchase alcohol are also effective, although less so than tax and early intervention, as has been the case with smoking. One wonders, conclude the authors, how many more lives will be damaged by alcohol in the UK before our Governments decide to tackle the problem with measures that are likely to work.
Another article in this week's Christmas issue of the BMJ reveals that the ancient Greeks had a sophisticated understanding of the effects of alcohol, both in moderation and excess.