Alcohol is an easy target for headlines because so many of us have an interest in it. 69% of men and 55% of women drink it at least once a week and 37% of men and 29% of women drink over their daily recommended ‘limit’ once a week or more. In the last week alone, David Cameron has stated his aim of tackling the ‘national problem’ of alcohol abuse and Alistair Campbell has confessed that introducing 24 hour licensing was wrong. Now doctors including Professor Ian Gilmore, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, have announced that alcohol could lead to 210,000 preventable deaths in England and Wales in the next 20 years.
Many of my patients are outraged at the price they pay for alcohol – but they aren’t talking about their supermarket bills. Alcohol costs the NHS almost £3 billion a year, which could pay for a lot of expensive life-saving cancer drugs. Yet the vast majority of patients I see who drink at ‘hazardous’ or even ‘harmful’ levels still believe it’s somebody else’s problem. Patients who drink twelve pints and get picked up in the gutter don’t think they have a problem because they don’t drink during the week. Others who get through a bottle of wine without blinking believe they’re not damaging their health because they never get legless. I’ve been told that drinking every night is fine if you’re doing it because you enjoy the taste of wine and your body hasn’t told you that you need to stop; and that it’s okay if you can’t get through the day without a hipflask when you only do it because you hate your job.
When I reported for BBC Radio 4 on ‘binge drinking’, the station was inundated with listeners complaining that I was vilifying their perfectly normal social habits rather than focussing on the louts picking fights after a drunken night out. I was asked to come back on the programme the next day and respond. My reply? ‘Many listeners who enjoy a bottle of wine and a few gin and tonics with their spouses every evening have complained I’m getting at them. That’s because I am’.
No matter how we dress it up, alcohol is a toxin. Our livers can process a certain amount, but the more we drink, the less we feel the effects. That makes it all too easy for the units to mount up to harmful levels without blackouts or even hangovers. David Cameron can tinker at the edges all he likes, but he needs to grasp the politically unpalatable truth – no country has made real inroads into alcohol abuse without banning cheap drink offers and introducing minimum pricing for alcohol. The last Chief Medical Officer who advised this was told by the government that the sensible majority of moderate drinkers should not have to pay for the excesses of the few. They may have well admitted that they were not prepared to risk losing votes to save lives.
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