Friday, 27 January 2012

Taking a sober look at the facts around alcohol

One of the most interesting things about alcohol is that British people apparently find it hard to talk about it calmly and rationally, even when they are stone cold sober!
Over the last 30 years, alcohol has became steadily more affordable: price rises have consistently failed to keep pace with wage increases and Governments have kept alcohol taxes artificially low compared to other sources of revenue. As affordability has increased, so has consumption. And – hardly surprisingly – as consumption has increased, so has the harm caused by alcohol. Alongside this Government incentive to consumption, alcohol has also become more available and more heavily marketed; the alcohol content in available drinks has also increased and much larger wine glasses have become the norm. These are changes that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. In 2010, in England alone, there were over 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions for the first time, and harms associated with problem drinking continue to rise.

A recent poll commissioned by the Methodist Church and its partners found that 61% of adult respondents in the UK felt there was a problem with excessive drinking in their neighbourhood. But public disorder, violence and other visible effects of alcohol misuse are not just issues of morality and enforcement; above all, they are medical issues to be considered alongside liver and heart disease.The simple fact is alcohol is a legal and socially acceptable drug which can cause dangerous long-term effects both on the body and people's behaviour. It is essential that all alcohol policy should be informed by medical research.

Studies such as the University of Sheffield’s landmark 2008 research (see e.g.!/file/PartB.pdf) have shown that a minimum price per unit of alcohol of between 40p and 50p would reduce health harms, public disorder, alcoholism and sick days, saving lives and millions of pounds in costs to the NHS and Police. As noted by Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs,(see, per unit minimum pricing has been recommended by the Chief Medical Officer (2009), the Royal College of Physicians, the British Medical Association (2008), the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE, 2010), the all-party Parliamentary Committee on Alcohol (2010), and Alcohol Concern. Churches (including the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches) and charities have backed this call and David Cameron announced support for the per unit minimum price at the end of 2011, although there is significant opposition within the Coalition Government.

Objectively, the key question is whether setting a minimum unit price is illegal under European competition law. This remains to be established: there are grounds for believing that the health argument may take legal precedence. However there is a less rational criticism of minimum pricing that keeps emerging. People take queries about their alcohol consumption personally as a moral criticism saying, in essence, “who are you to tell me how much to drink; I know my limits”. Yet doctors routinely deal with people in their 20s or 30s who have effectively destroyed their livers or even brain function through excessive drinking without showing the clich├ęd signs of alcoholism.

Another illusory claim is that if the British had a continental drinking culture like, for example, the French, we would not exhibit the worst kinds of binge-drinking. Until around 30 years ago, Britain was essentially at the bottom of alcohol harms in Europe and liver disease and other alcohol-related conditions were high. During the same time period that drinking culture caught on the UK, France started to reconsider its drinking culture, and harms have fallen.

10 years ago, even to question the role of alcohol in society was to risk being accused of being a weirdo or even worse, religious! Now many voices are saying our drink culture has gone too far, even if many of these voices think it is only ‘other people’ who are in danger. 

It is time consider the similarities between the present time and the 19th and early 20th Century heyday of the Temperance movement. Then as now, alcohol (like gambling) is an activity whose abuse disproportionately harms the poorest and most vulnerable. Concern for social justice means challenging policies which exploit the vulnerable. 

Maybe instead of a new Temperance-style movement, based on the negative command to abstain from alcohol, Churches can offer a positive vision of life in community. Hard as it is to believe nowadays, Christians were once known for their radical joy. There may be nothing wrong with spirits in moderation, but isn’t a society that becomes reliant on chemical props one that has lost touch with the Spirit?