The scale of alcohol-related harm
Our relationship with alcohol has been normalised in modern society. In 2016, 7% of adults regularly drank over the chief medical officers low risk guidelines (14 units for men and women), and 2.5 million reported drinking over 14 units on their heaviest drinking day.
Drinking alcohol at this level has a significant health impact. In 2016 there were 7,327 deaths from alcohol specific causes in the UK and over 1.1 million hospital admissions. Alcohol is causally linked to over 60 different medical conditions including liver damage, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.
Alcohol is also linked to domestic violence, non-domestic violence and significant economic costs. Various estimates have considered the total social and economic cost to be £21 billion a year in England and Wales, £7.2 billion a year in Scotland and £680 million a year in Northern Ireland.
Doctors see first-hand the harmful impact of alcohol. There is strong evidence of the harm caused by alcohol, and the effectiveness of a range of interventions, most recently highlighted by a Public Health England evidence review. A number of interventions are needed to tackle the harms caused by alcohol.
Tackling the harms caused by alcohol
The overarching objective of alcohol policy should be to reduce the total volume of alcohol across the population of the UK. A comprehensive approach is required, involving a range of measures. Population measures are needed to tackle the main drivers of alcohol consumption – accessibility and availability – as well as to address key influences such as alcohol marketing. These measures should be complemented by more targeted actions, such as drink driving restrictions and measures to support heavy drinkers.
The BMA has a long history of campaigning for measures to reduce the harmful impact of alcohol, including:
Minimum unit pricing (MUP)
Reducing the drink driving limit
Alcohol and pregnancy
We also campaign on a range of alcohol-related issues at a European level. Pending the UK’s formal departure from the EU (expected to take place in 2019), EU legislation currently supersedes UK law in a number of areas linked to alcohol related harm. For example, EU legislation determines how foodstuffs are labelled – including nutritional information – and advertising across Europe. Alcoholic drinks are currently exempt from this, however, the European Commission is working on a proposal which would include alcoholic beverages in the legislation.
For further information on the scale of harm caused by alcohol and the range of key policy responses needed to tackle it, read our briefing.
Ten key action areas for reducing the harm caused by alcohol
- reduce the affordability of alcohol through taxation measures
- prevent the sale of cheap alcohol through the implementation of minimum unit pricing
- ensure health is a key factor in licensing decisions
- implement a comprehensive ban on all alcohol marketing communications
- ensure alcohol education is delivered independently of the alcohol industry
- provide consistent consumer information through mandatory labelling of alcoholic products
- implement evidence-based measures to reduce drink driving levels
- introduce a range of measures to reduce and better manage pregnancies affected by alcohol
- support healthcare professionals in identifying and managing alcohol-related problems
- provide adequate resources for specialist alcohol treatment services.
Role of doctors
Healthcare professionals have an important role to play in the early identification of patients with an alcohol problem, and in delivering brief advice to help them reduce their consumption. All healthcare professionals should receive adequate training in prevention, early identification and brief alcohol interventions.
Doctors are in a unique position to advocate for the health needs of their patients. Our briefing sets out a range of measures for reducing the harm caused by alcohol. Doctors have a key role in providing an important medical perspective, advocating for action in their workplace, local area or by influencing national and international policy.
Tackling alcohol-related harm
Alcohol and pregnancy: preventing and managing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (2016 update)
Under the influence – the damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people
Alcohol misuse: tackling the UK epidemic