Raise alcohol duty to fund our NHS and save lives, say leading health experts

A rise in alcohol duty in the upcoming Budget could help fund thousands of new jobs in health and public services, say top health experts.

In a letter to the Chancellor, the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), a coalition of more than 50 leading UK health organisations, call for an increase in alcohol duty by 2% above inflation to ease pressure on public finances, tackle the harm caused by alcohol and fund our NHS.

Recent cuts to alcohol duty have cost the government more than £1 billion every year[1] –enough to fund the salaries of 40,000 nurses or 29,000 police officers[2].

Current levels of duty – and the constant pressure to reduce them further – have been immensely costly to the Government and wider society.

Research from the University of Sheffield shows that cuts in alcohol duty since 2012 have led to:

  • 1,969 additional deaths
  • 61,386 additional hospitalisations
  • £317 million in additional costs to the NHS
  • 111,062 additional criminal offences
  • 484,727 additional days of workplace sickness absence[3]

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “Alcohol is 64% cheaper than it was thirty years ago, and its availability at these prices is encouraging more of us to drink at unhealthy levels. It is no coincidence that deaths from liver disease have increased in line with alcohol’s affordability in the UK.[4]

“In order to protect the future health of our society, the Government must take action now by increasing duty on alcohol and investing that money into our over-stretched and underfunded NHS and public services.”

Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Alcohol abuse continues to do serious damage to people’s lives and it is often society’s most vulnerable who are hit hardest by our failure to confront it.

“With alcohol-related admissions to hospitals have rising year-on-year in England and thousands of lives continuing to be cut short, it is clear that urgent action is needed to tackle the ill-effects of alcohol abuse.

“Increasing the duty on alcohol sales is just one step required to relieve pressure on NHS services; this revenue could be invested in nursing staff and services based within communities that aim to change cultural and social attitudes towards alcohol and provide world-class health protection programmes.“

BMA Board of Science Chair Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said: “Despite having a wealth of evidence to show the devastating impact that alcohol has on health, families and society, nowhere near enough is being done to reduce the risks to the public’s health.

“As doctors, we see the detrimental impact that alcohol has on health on a daily basis. Not only the impact on physical health, being linked to conditions such as cancer and liver cirrhosis, but also the profoundly destructive impact it can have on mental health.

“At a time when NHS resources and staff are in short supply, the extra funding raised from the increase in alcohol duty could go directly back into NHS services, as well as funding local alcohol prevention and support programmes. 

““Increasing duty on alcohol is one of the wider measures that the Government must take if we are to stop alcohol resulting in more lives being ruined, or worse still, lost.”

Professor Julia Sinclair, Chair of the Addictions Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “As a frontline addiction psychiatrist I see first-hand the damage alcohol causes to the health of individuals, their families and wider society.

“Alcohol related hospital admissions have reached record levels, costing the NHS millions, and comes at a time when devastating cuts have been made to addiction services.

“The Chancellor should increase alcohol duty to protect people’s health and to reduce the increasing pressures on the NHS.”

Dr Zulfiquar Mirza, Alcohol Lead at the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said: “We are concerned by the harm attributable to alcohol in our society, particularly those relating to short- and long-term health, crime and disorder. The brunt of the short-term health consequences of excess and irresponsible alcohol consumption falls on the ambulance service and the UK’s already hard-pressed Emergency Departments.

“Many alcohol related attendances to the ED are preventable and hamper the ability of our emergency care systems to look after other patients, so we welcome the Alcohol Health Alliance’s move to increase alcohol duty.”

[1] Calculations based on the estimated cost of cuts and freezes in alcohol duty since 2012 (IAS (2018). Budget analysis); (£1.2 billion)  

[2]PSSRU (2018), Unit Costs of Health and Social Care 2018, the ONS estimates of median annual full-time gross pay by occupation (ONS (2019). Employee earnings in the UK: 2019).

[3] Angus, C. and Henney, M. (2019). Modelling the impact of alcohol duty policies since 2012 in England and Scotland. University of Sheffield

[4] Williams, R. et al (2015) Implementation of the Lancet Standing Commission on Liver Disease in the UK, The Lancet 386:10008, p2104