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MPs call for focus on alcohol's hidden health dangers

The government’s alcohol strategy should focus more on the health effects of drinking, MPs have said.

A Commons health select committee report says the strategy’s emphasis on antisocial behaviour overshadows the health impact of alcohol. The comments have been welcomed by the BMA.

BMA evidence to the committee called for wide-ranging measures to reduce drinking across the population, rather than policies that targeted irresponsible drinkers exclusively.

BMA director of professional activities Vivienne Nathanson said: ‘Alcohol consumption in England causes significant medical, psychological and social harm, and places a huge burden on the NHS. This is not caused by binge drinkers alone, but is a result of high consumption across the population.’

In keeping with this, the committee’s report, Government’s Alcohol Strategy, states: ‘The main focus of the strategy is the need to address public order issues. We agree that these are important, but believe the health impact of the misuse of alcohol is more insidious and pervasive.’

Miniumum pricing

The select committee supports a minimum price for alcohol in England. Unlike the BMA, it does not specify that this should be at least 50 pence per unit. It suggests an advisory body should help determine the price.

But the committee acknowledges there are practical arguments for aligning pricing policies with the 50-pence-per-unit approach to be introduced in Scotland.

It states: ‘If the minimum unit price in England were to be fixed at a different level to that in Scotland, we would expect the evidence supporting that decision to be set out clearly.’

The committee also differs from the BMA in its support for responsibility deals, which it says are ‘intrinsic to responsible corporate citizenship’. But the report adds that ‘the responsibility deal is not a substitute for government policy’.

Dr Nathanson said the BMA was particularly concerned about the role of the alcohol industry in the government’s strategy.

She stressed: ‘There is a clear conflict of interest here. While the alcohol industry has a role to play, that should be in implementing regulations — not having a voice in what they should be.’

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The cost of alcohol harm

Alcohol is causally related to more than 60 different medical conditions resulting in over £2 billion in healthcare costs.

After years of campaigning from the BMA, the issue of minimum pricing is where there is the greatest hope of progress.

Read more about our work on alcohol