The health risks associated with drinking alcohol are in the news again. Public Health England’s issued advice suggesting people have at least two alcohol free days a week. It’s aimed at middle-aged drinkers – statistics show that people aged between 45 and 65 are more likely than any other group to consume more than the recommended 14 units a week. A YouGov poll also showed people find cutting down on alcohol far harder than healthy eating or exercising.
Children need to be taught about the dangers of drinking alcohol, in the same way they are with cigarettes
Whilst I applaud any attempt to get the nation to drink less, the approach to this campaign was all wrong. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said enjoying a drink was “absolutely fine” and his advice to take dry days was a tip rather than a target. He said that drinking shouldn’t be treated in the same way as smoking and that alcohol was “a big part of British enjoyment.”
But why shouldn’t alcohol be treated in the same way as tobacco? Surely he should have highlighted the health risks of drinking alcohol? When it subsequently emerged that the Public Health England campaign was funded by Drinkaware, a charity funded by the alcohol industry, Mr Selbie’s reasoning starts to look a bit murkier.
Earlier this month, the government alcohol adviser, Sir Ian Gilmore, resigned over the agency’s decision to work with Drinkaware. And dozens of health experts have written a letter saying the link between PHE and Drinkaware is a “significant risk to the effective communication of alcohol advice to the public.” How can a publicly-funded campaign be independent if it’s funded by the very industry it’s looking to investigate?
Questions have also been asked about the three officials from Public Health England who attended a conference in May that was also attended by representatives from two breweries. They discussed finding a way in which the drinks industry could pay for research into the effectiveness of public health alcohol campaigns.
Two years ago, the government cut the alcohol limits it recommends for men and women to 14 units a week – equivalent to six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine. But more recently a global study in the Lancet indicated there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
In the UK, nearly 63,000 people will die in the next five years from liver problems linked to heavy drinking – at a cost to the NHS of 17 billion pounds. Liver disease is one of Britain’s biggest killers, claiming about 12,000 lives a year in England alone. The number of deaths associated with it has risen by 400% since 1970.
Britain has a deeply embedded drink culture, whether it’s heading out for “a few bevvies” after work or drinking a fine bottle of wine to complement the evening meal. What do we do when we turn 18? Head to the pub for our first “legal” drink. Christenings? Wetting the baby’s head. Weddings? Toasting the happy couple. Funerals? Gathering together to celebrate the life of the one now gone, inevitably involving copious amounts of alcohol.
Everyone reading this knows someone who has been touched by alcohol dependency. The prognosis is often irreversible and rapid – a catastrophic decline in health, with the equally rapid departure of friends and family as the episodes of unreliability and self-harm proliferate.
Instead of just shrugging our shoulders and saying that “alcohol is a big part of the British enjoyment” we need to tackle a culture that encourages people to centre their lives around booze. We need to consider the vast profits made by the alcohol industry and the real dependency our whole society has on the revenue it generates in taxes.
The first step is recognising that we have a problem and that laughing it away won’t wash any more. Our society needs to make some kind of intervention and tell it like it is. It can’t be “go on, have another one! It’ll make you feel better and make me feel better about my own drinking.”
As the death toll mounts and the suffering of those connected with it increases, it’s time to manage the alcohol industry the same way we did with tobacco. We need to put proper health warnings on alcohol labels just as we have on cigarette packets. We need to raise the price of the cheapest booze, in the same way we did with tobacco. We need to teach children of the dangers of drinking alcohol, just as we have with smoking cigarettes – instead of grooming them to drink as if it’s a sign of being grown up.
If you are concerned that you drink more than the recommended 14 units a week, why not sign up to one of One Year No Beer’s alcohol-free challenges? You can find out more about it here: https://www.