It’s not the first time this issue has come up in these pages, but the latest research published by the drinks industry funded charity Drinkaware is shocking enough to prompt calls for government action.
In January this year, following a long process of consultation with medical and public health experts, the recommended weekly alcohol limit for adult males was reduced to 14 units a week, matching the limit already recommended for women.
Using a sample of 2,303 adults the research team set out to discover whether the advice was being heeded and how aware people might be of the health risks associated with alcohol.
The responses exceeded even the lowest of expectations with more than half (53%) of those drinking above the guideline limit unware that they risk ongoing health problems when they drink.
Only one in every 10 of the test subjects was aware that alcohol has been directly linked with cancer. In fact, alcohol has been linked to over 60 different serious medical conditions and illnesses, many of them life threatening.
Equally concerning was the persistent belief that drinking actually promoted health; around 49% of those adults regularly drinking more than 14 units per week believed that ‘moderate’ drinking is positively good for your health.
Clearly the definition of ‘moderate’ is by no means universally settled when it comes to drinking.
The averaged consumption of 37 units per week among the adult males aged between 45 and 65 years old is the equivalent of around two and a half pints of beer or large glasses of wine, or large (double) measures of spirits, every single day.
The research suggests that more than 800,000 adults in the UK are drinking at a level of 50 units a week, around 22 pints of beer or glasses of wine.
The question of how to address the problem is made even more complicated by the findings of the study which showed that nearly a third (29%) of those adults who regularly drank more than the recommended 14 units felt unable to stop or reduce their alcohol intake.
Overall this latest research suggests that some 10 million British adults are seriously increasing their risk of future ill health and disease by regularly consuming more than an appropriate level of alcohol.
Some public health officials are now calling for a shift in policy towards a more interventionist approach along the lines of the (very successful) drive to reduce smoking within the UK population.
The current annual cost to the NHS of drink related treatments is £3.5 billion which doesn’t include conditions that may have been triggered by, but are not directly traceable to, a patient’s past drinking habits.
Public Health England further estimates that alcohol drives a further £18 billion of other costs, £11 billion for crime and policing and £7 billion in lost productivity to business through absenteeism.
To place this in some sort of context, the estimated cost to the NHS of treating smoking related diseases is around £2 billion.
On the other hand, the direct tax revenues from tobacco in 2016 were around £9.5 billion (tax and duty represent about 80% of the cost of a standard pack of cigarettes) while treasury revenues from alcohol were around £10.5 billion.
I would be the last person to suggest that the state should use its power of taxation to paternalistically influence societal behaviour, but it does. The recent announcement of a sugar tax highlights that strand of government thinking that believes it has a duty to make our worst vices a financial luxury available only to the well-heeled, thereby reducing its general presence in the population.
All in the interests of the tax payer and the public purse of course, which does make one wonder why alcohol hasn’t received more attention? Surely there is no moral argument that favours one public health hazard over another?
We can all agree (and generally have) that smoking is a terrible addiction, but is alcohol any less so?
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