The Alcohol Health Alliance UK was launched 15 years ago.
Across the four nations, there have been great policy successes and pitfalls over that time. In this blog series, we look back on the progress that has been made to help reduce alcohol harm across the UK and reflect upon what needs to happen next.
In this edition, Bernadette Maginnis, BMA senior public affairs advisor in Northern Ireland, examines how alcohol policy has changed in her region during the lifetime of the AHA.
Despite experiencing high levels of harm to our population due to alcohol, Northern Ireland has failed to introduce any recent legislation to try to mitigate the harm alcohol can do.
There is a very clear relationship between alcohol consumption and a range of health issues. Research has estimated that the use of alcohol its related harms has cost the Northern Ireland economy up to £900 million, with up to £250m directly borne by the health sector alone.
Worryingly, these are the last available official figures, reporting estimates from almost 15 years ago, and so extremely likely to understate the current cost. This is at a time when the health and social care system is under unprecedented pressure in terms of service provision and financial support. Moreover, a financial cost can never bring home the full impact that the harm related to alcohol use has on individuals, families, and the wider community.
According to the report recently published by the Northern Ireland Department of Health summarising information on people presenting to services with problem drug and/or alcohol use, over 3,000 clients were recorded over a 12-month period. More than a third of these clients presented indicating an alcohol use disorder, with another 945 clients indicating both alcohol and drug use. Over the past three years alone, we have seen an extremely worrying increase in alcohol specific deaths, with 284 such deaths in 2018, 336 in 2019 and 351 in 2020.
It is obvious that solutions need to be found to help fight this growing problem. The most obvious way of dealing with this is through legislation, passing laws to make alcohol less accessible. One way to do that is by addressing the low cost.
As far back as December 2014, the then Northern Ireland Minister of Health, DUP MLA Jim Wells, committed to carry out a consultation on minimum unit pricing. He reiterated this commitment in February 2015, vowing to bring Northern Ireland in line with our land neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, who introduced the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in 2015 that came into force in 2018.
However, this consultation never materialised during his term in office, reportedly due to the Scotch Whisky’s legal challenge that wasn’t resolved until November 2017. By this time, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended and did not get up and running again until January 2020. The subsequent COVID-19 global pandemic had a huge impact on the number and pace of pieces of legislation making their way through the Assembly in Northern Ireland.
Eventually, the consultation on minimum unit pricing of alcohol was launched by the Minister of Health, Robin Swann Ulster Unionist Party MLA, on 22 February 2022. Again, political instability has meant that no further progress has been made on actually developing legislation. The Assembly was again suspended from February 2022, and despite an election held in May, there is currently no Executive or Health Minister in place to move this issue on.
The financial cost of alcohol and introducing minimum unit pricing legislation here is just one part of a complex puzzle and is far from the innovative solutions we need to tackle this issue. Investment into education and treatment of addiction and abuse also needs to be addressed, but we need to start somewhere, and soon, before we see more lives adversely impacted by alcohol.
Written by Bernadette Maginnis
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.