This week, Chief Medical Officer for England, Sally Davies, announced new, tougher guidelines for recommended alcohol consumption in Britain based on evidence that drinking, even in moderation, increases our chance of cancer. Her advice is clear, cut back on the booze or risk the consequences. So can Britain kick its alcohol habit, just like that?
The issue is a complex one. Britain has a reputation for its booze culture that spans continents, and a social dependence on alcohol as part of our Anglo-Saxon DNA. The Great British Pub represents the beating heart of our communities, with the unique potential to unite groups of strangers, friends, families and co-workers irrespective of age, sex, race or gender. Our economy also reaps the rewards, with pub culture, as of 2014, injecting £21 billion a year into the national GDP.
But that’s where the romance ends. According to the latest figures released in 2014, our nation’s alcohol dependence costs the NHS in excess of £3.5 billion each year, a figure that is rising along with alcohol-related illnesses such as liver disease and cirrhosis. This 31st December, like many before it, 48 alcohol-related arrests were carried out on London’s streets alone with the associated anti-social behaviour putting unprecedented strain on our already sorely stretched public services. It’s clear that our dependence is a problem on a national scale, seeping through every strata of society, with claims that drink rather than fees is the biggest problem facing British universities today.
Introducing revised alcohol consumption guidelines will do little to change the habits of a lifetime, when our drinking bears the most resemblance to any recognisable British ‘culture’ we have. Our healthcare providers have an obligation to inform us of the risks associated with drinking but we need tougher, alternative measures to curb the habit and relieve the strain on both our health and our social services. Before we can go cold turkey, a wider shift in mentality needs to take place, which won’t be popular. Implementing minimum pricing per unit should be a priority and further deterrence measures should follow, including increased advertising regulation. A pro-health stance has to be adopted by our government if we’re to tackle the problem, although there is a clear conflict of interest at play here. David Cameron, since first announcing his support for minimum pricing per unit measures in 2012, has flip-flopped on the issue, amid increasing pressures and aggressive lobbying from the global alcohol producers.
Until public health is prioritised over the economic power of the alcohol industry, change will be hard to come by. Britain is in the grip of addiction and guidelines alone won’t be enough to tackle the problem.