Responding to the publication of the Public Accounts Committee report1 which warns that the Government is not taking alcohol harms seriously enough, Professor David Strain, chair of the BMA board of science committee, said:
“Today’s alarming report reminds us that while alcohol is still one of the great risks to the health of the UK population, it is not being treated with anything like the urgency it demands from the Government.
“It is clear that much more must be done to prevent alcohol-related harm. All the evidence2 from public health research shows that regulation works; minimum unit pricing, alcohol duty, mandatory labelling and limits on alcohol advertising, are all effective at reducing harmful levels of drinking. What we need is to see the Government and parliament being more proactive in pushing through these meaningful changes.
“Addiction to alcohol is a serious mental illness, and yet it is too often seen as a personal failing. Like all mental health problems, it can affect anyone and it becomes more common when the economy is doing badly. For those people who are already dependent on alcohol or experiencing alcohol harm, it is essential that they able to access the right treatment when and where they need it, without fear of embarrassment or stigma. Yet, as this damning report highlights, less than 1 in 5 people with alcohol dependence are currently receiving the treatment they need.
“The addictions psychiatry workforce is on its knees. A 2020 report3 found that the number of specialist posts in England had fallen by more than half, from 64 in 2011 to just 27 in 2019, leaving some regions without a single doctor training in this much-needed specialty. Yet there were almost a million alcohol-related hospital admissions last year alone, contributing to the hospital bed crisis and increasing stress on the already over-burdened workforce.
“What we need to see is a comprehensive alcohol strategy from the Government that tackles the problem at both ends: preventing harmful drinking through improving the conditions in which people live and work, funding for community mental health support and ensuring timely and effective treatment for those who are already living with an alcohol problem.”
Dr Penelope Toff, chair of the BMA public health medicine committee, said:
“The Public Accounts Committee has done an excellent job of highlighting the devastating impact of depleted public health budgets - slashed by 25% since 2015 – and the impossibility of providing services when local authorities don’t know what their Public Health budget will be from year to year. Funding for drug and alcohol treatments is 17% lower than eight years ago and additional funds have been insufficient to replace those losses.
“Alcohol-related harm is much higher in more deprived areas, yet the largest funding cuts have been in some of these worse off parts of the country. The latest data4 on alcohol-related deaths shows that for the eighth consecutive year, the North East had the highest rate of any English region and twice the rate of alcohol deaths compared to London. We need Government to address these unacceptable regional variations in health outcomes by ensuring health, public health and social care systems in more deprived areas and communities are adequately resourced and that health is considered across all government policies.
“Today’s report shows that per pound, alcohol treatments are very good value for money; every £1 spent on alcohol treatment services provides a return of £3. Starving councils of investment in these and other vital public health services is a false economy. What is urgently needed is a full restoration of the Public Health grant and a guarantee that this will keep pace with inflation and demand, so that local authorities can plan ahead and provide the services needed by their populations.”
Notes to editors
The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.