Liver data prompts alcohol pricing demand
21 November 2012
Doctors leaders have reiterated their support for a minimum price for alcohol as figures reveal a rising tide of liver disease.
Chief medical officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies’s first annual report calls for ‘comprehensive action’ to tackle liver disease after figures showed the condition was on the wane around Europe but increasing in England.
Between 2000 and 2009, deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in the under-65s increased by about 20 per cent in England while they fell by the same amount in the so-called EU-15 countries — the 15 nations that formed the EU before the start of expansion in 2004.
Dame Sally points out that the three major causes of liver disease — obesity, undiagnosed infection and, increasingly, harmful drinking — are preventable.
The report, published today, brings together a number of data sources in one place for the first time.
Dame Sally said: ‘I was struck by the data on liver disease particularly. This is the only major cause of preventable death that is on the increase in England that is generally falling in other comparable European nations.
‘We must act to change this.’
Her calls were echoed by organisations including the BMA and the RCP (Royal College of Physicians of London), which strongly back a minimum price per unit for alcohol.
BMA director of professional activities Vivienne Nathanson said: ‘It is extremely worrying that so many people are dying in England from preventable liver disease, especially when this illness is falling in many other European countries.
‘One of the major causes of liver disease is harmful drinking. The BMA has been campaigning for many years for action to tackle alcohol misuse, including the introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol, an end to two-for-one deals that can promote irresponsible drinking, and more regulation on the marketing of alcohol.
‘If we are to turn the tide on rising liver disease, we must tackle harmful drinking and focus on other public health issues such as obesity.’
Government statement imminent
RCP president Sir Richard Thompson added that Dame Sally’s report ‘could not [have] come at a better time as we await the government’s decision on the most appropriate level for a minimum price for alcohol’.
The Government’s Alcohol Strategy, published in March, backed minimum pricing, and pledged to consult on the actual price. The strategy talked about 40p per unit, but the formal consultation has not yet been launched.
The BMA and the RCP back a minimum of 50p a unit, which would hit younger drinkers and heavy drinkers while not over-penalising moderate drinkers.
Dame Sally’s report is designed to be used by local authorities and Public Health England as they take on their roles to improve the health of local populations.
It examines key areas of health, including heart disease, obesity and cancer, and makes recommendations on access to care and how healthcare data can be better used.
One recommendation is for healthcare professionals to focus on tackling people’s bad habits as a whole, rather than individually. The report says nearly 70 per cent of people in England have two or more habits or medical risk factors such as smoking, harmful alcohol use or poor diet that are linked to life-limiting diseases.
Dame Sally added: ‘I strongly believe that data and scientific evidence should be at the heart of policy making and advice to [the] government, and have reflected this in the annual report.
‘Data should be used to inform our action on public health, and to evaluate the effectiveness of that action.’
A second volume of the report will look at infections in more detail. It will be published early next year.