Are we all in alcoholism together?

Here at Oyster HQ, we enjoy kicking back at the end of a long week with a cold gin-in-a-tin on our sun-drenched Brighton balcony.

So are we all part of the “national pandemic” of alcohol abuse? Drinking is so much a part of the British culture, we don’t even notice we are doing it much of the time.

Yet every single hour, a person in the UK dies from alcohol and a staggering 1.2million people are admitted to hospital every year because of the bottle: booze costs the UK economy £21bn a year.

In a world of ever-advancing technology and what seems like daily medical breakthroughs, liver disease is the only major disease we are not making meaningful progress against.

Cases of cancer, circulatory disease, respiratory disease and heart disease have all gone down since the 1970s.

Cases of liver disease have shot up exponentially. Over the last ten years, incidence of this preventable, fatal disease among under-30s has increased by 112%.

All these facts and figures, which are well known to anyone working in the field, make for scary reading in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Abuse: Manifesto 2014.


Let down by Government policy

The doctors, nurses and charity representatives we work with tell us constantly that they are struggling against a tide of indifference.

They feel let down by the Government’s U-turn on minimum unit pricing (MUP) and by the Department of Health dropping plans for a National Liver Strategy, but they are in no mood to stop fighting.

The human condition has at its heart a yearning for altered states of reality, and evidence of drug use can be found through the ages. As a nation, we celebrate just about everything we can with a drink, and think those who don’t are ‘weird’.

So how do you fight against that kind of deeply ingrained culture, I asked a liver nurse, and she said it would not happen overnight – but it could, and there is proof for that.

Ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine a ban on smoking in public places, she said, but the cigarette lobby had lost out to education, awareness and the overwhelming public interest in health.

She also said she had to keep on fighting, because the patients she was caring for were getting younger and younger.

It’s a fight being fought right now in Scotland, where the Scotch Whisky Association has mounted a legal battle, currently making its way through the EU’s Court of Justice, against the country’s bid to introduce MUP.

The argument is that MUP breaches Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which deals with the free movement of goods. It is also argued the move would do nothing to tackle alcohol misuse.

While I would be inclined to say the price of other problem drugs ­– heroin springs to mind ­­­­­­– doesn’t put people off using them, the evidence on MUP coming from abroad begs to differ.

Minimum prices were introduced in Saskatchewan, Canada in 2010, and the rates were adjusted according to alcoholic strength.

An 8.4% reduction in consumption was found for every 10% increase in the minimum price, and senior police reported a 50% reduction in alcohol-related crime.

Other studies, in British Columbia, linked a 10% increase in MUP with a 9% drop in acute alcohol-related hospital admissions.

The APPG report makes a fresh call for MUP to be introduced in England and Wales, saying the current measure, of a ban on the below-cost sale of booze, affects just 1.3% of all alcohol sold.

“In contrast, MUP would precisely target the products such as super-strength white cider and cheap spirits that are known to be consumed by harmful drinkers and children, without penalising moderate drinkers, including those on low incomes,” said the report.

What it wouldn’t impact on, the report says, would be pub prices, which are already selling above the suggested MUP limit of 50p a unit.

The strange irony is the increase in liver disease has coupled with the decline of the pub industry. In 1974, 90% of all booze consumed in the UK was done so in licensed premises, but at the last count, in 2010, that figure was closer to 50%.

Drinking in the local boozer, if you can find one, means controlled measures and a guarantee you will be told to leave if and when you have had too much. This is not true of off-licensed premises, which increased from 24,438 in 1910 to 51,130 in 2012.

“MUP also supports socially responsible local pubs, who are currently struggling to survive because of irresponsibly low prices on supermarkets and off-licences,” said the report.

MUP may not be the silver bullet, but it’s one of the only tools in the armoury.

One in 20 adults in the UK are dependent on alcohol: that’s 1.6millon people, but only 6% get any kind of treatment.

It’s not just the drinker who is losing in this scenario: a shocking 60% of all social workers’ caseloads around children involve alcohol.

Almost one in six deaths on the road involve drivers who are over the legal limit; more than two in five violent crimes and 37% of domestic violence incidents are committed under the influence of alcohol.

Almost half of residents say they avoid town centres at night, because of rowdy, drunken, violent behaviour.

This is a problem that infiltrates the whole of society, from the homeless gent sinking a super-strength lager to forget the cold for half an hour, to the middle class 50-something sinking a bottle of Rioja while watching Newsnight.


By Amanda Barrell


Download the infographic ‘Are we all in alcoholism together? (Part 1)‘ and ‘Are we all in alcoholism together? (Part 2)

Published on: August 20, 2014