MPs and peers call on Government to urgently address Britain’s alcohol harm crisis

Alcohol is inflicting long-lasting harm across all areas of society and family life, according to a group of cross-party Parliamentarians. The group of MPs, peers and health experts are calling on the Government to develop an alcohol strategy to get to the heart of the nation’s drink problem.

Alcohol is the leading risk-factor for ill health, death and disability among those aged 15 to 49 in England yet not enough is being done to tackle the problem, the group warns.

The independent Commission on Alcohol Harm was set up by alcohol health experts and Parliamentarians to examine the full extent of alcohol harm across the UK. In its final report, the Commission outlines recommendations for reducing harm and calls for a national strategy for alcohol.

Evidence submitted to the Commission highlights the serious impact alcohol harm has on family life with children living with an alcohol dependent parent five times more likely to develop eating disorders, twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence or addiction, and three times as likely to consider suicide.

Ruth*, who gave evidence to the Commission anonymously said: “From the ages of 12 – 18, I experienced depression and anxiety due to living with my parents in an increasingly toxic environment. My Dad’s alcohol dependence was not discussed in our family at this point, and my parents’ increasingly dysfunctional behaviour made me begin to think I was going mad. This led me to harm myself in multiple ways as a young person, including undereating, harmful drinking and self-harm. I began to recover gradually on leaving my parental home.”

The Commission concluded that a new UK Government alcohol strategy is required urgently.

Recommendations from the final report include:

  • The new alcohol strategy must include targeted measures to support families and protect children from harm, including alcohol-fuelled violence.
  • The new alcohol strategy must be science-led and adopt the World Health Organization’s evidence-based recommendations for reducing the harmful use of alcohol. This includes measures on affordability – such as the introduction of minimum unit pricing in England – and restrictions on alcohol advertising and marketing – such as ending sports sponsorship, better information for consumers, advice and treatment for people drinking at hazardous and harmful levels, and action to reduce drink driving.
  • Reducing the £3.5bn cost of alcohol to the NHS would help to relieve pressure on the service and free up capacity to respond to the consequences of COVID-19.
  • Changing the conversation and challenging alcohol’s position in our culture. This means addressing the stigma around alcohol use disorders, encouraging conversations about drinking to take place more easily and creating space for people to be open about the effects of alcohol on their health and those around them.

Baroness Finlay, Chair of the Commission on Alcohol Harm said: “Alcohol harm is a hidden health crisis that impacts us all – in families, our communities, and throughout society. For too long, the onus has been on individuals, with drinkers urged to ‘drink responsibly’. We need to finally acknowledge the true scale of the harm caused by alcohol, which goes far beyond individuals who drink, and put the responsibility squarely with the harmful product itself. By doing so we will help to do away with the stigma and shame that surrounds those who are harmed by alcohol, and often stops them from accessing the help that they need.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance said: “When people think about alcohol harm, they often think about liver damage – but its impact goes much further than this. This report highlights the very real ways that alcohol can devastate not just the life of the drinker but those around them. If we wish to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic as a healthier society, we must address the ongoing health crisis of alcohol harm.”

Derek Thomas MP, Conservative MP for St Ives, West Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly, said: “‘We should not ignore the harm that alcohol can cause. Raising awareness of alcohol harm will give courage to those who recognise they need help. The Commission has opened my eyes not least because the evidence we saw clearly demonstrated that when Government takes appropriate action alcohol harm can be reduced. The cost to lives, family units and the burden on public services including the NHS makes it essential that Government takes decisive and appropriate action to address alcohol harm.”

Kenny Macaskill MP, Scottish National Party MP for East Lothian, said:”Alcohol is a product many enjoy but it’s also a drug that we therefore correctly license. Scotland has made great progress in tackling alcohol harm and there are things to learn from there, but an alcohol strategy must also be science-led and adopt the World Health Organization’s evidence-based recommendations for reducing the harmful use of alcohol. Tackling affordability, availability and advertising remains fundamental to reducing alcohol harm.”

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe said: “It is no secret that alcohol can cause unhappy and unhealthy lives and its harm ripples across the whole of our society. Not only is alcohol harm a strain on the public purse, it can tear apart families and impact lives for generations. The government must implement an alcohol strategy as a matter of urgency in order to save lives.”

Baroness Boycott said“As someone who has experienced the harm of alcohol first-hand, I know how important the recommendations of this report are. But we will not be able to change the situation until we can openly talk about alcohol addiction and its related harms without fear of stigma. Living without alcohol has only enriched my life; people should not feel ashamed to ask for help.”

*Ruth is a pseudonym