Alcohol has been a well-loved but problematic part of British life for centuries, as immortalised in 18th century artist Hogarth’s depictions of “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street”.
In its latest steps to try to tackle England’s long-standing and complex relationship with booze, the Government has just announced its alcohol strategy.
As you probably spotted last Friday, one of its headline-grabbing – and welcome – measures will be the introduction of a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol sold.
While the strategy’s main aim is to reduce binge drinking, its impact will be seen far beyond our city centres after closing time.
Because it would be a mistake to look at modern-day footage of drunken young people falling over in the streets and assume that alcohol is a purely social problem – the hidden damage to the nation’s health from excessive alcohol consumption is just as serious.
But while most people know that drinking excessively over time can cause liver damage, fewer know that it also increases the risk of cancer.
Alcohol and cancer – the facts
Drinking alcohol is associated with increased risks of mouth, food pipe, breast, bowel and liver cancers. The evidence shows the more you drink, the greater your risk. And as far as we know, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you have a couple of drinks every night, or save it up for one night a week.
Overall, research shows that over 12,500 cases of cancer are caused by drinking – that’s one in every 25 cancers in the UK. The only way to address the problem is to reassess our relationship with alcohol, and consider ways to reduce consumption.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be teetotal. You can minimise your risk by drinking less than 3 units a day if you’re a man, or less than two units a day if you’re a woman.
Minimum pricing – our view
We believe that minimum pricing for alcohol is a positive step in addressing our consumption as a nation. A recent paper by researchers from the University of Sheffield shows that the proposed minimum price of 40p per unit, together with a ban on discount sales, will lead to a nationwide reduction in consumption of 4.6 per cent.
This may not sound like much, but the authors think it would reduce the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions by 5,100 a year. And an overall reduction in consumption would also reduce the number of alcohol-related cancers in England.
Naturally, most people wonder what minimum pricing will mean for them. The simple answer is ‘not much’. According to the Sheffield study, the impact of minimum pricing on moderate drinkers (defined as no more than 14 units per week for women and 21 units for men) will be £5-6 per year, equivalent to a couple pints down the pub.
But for harmful drinkers, the estimated cost is an estimated additional £100-135 a year.
The reason for the difference lies in how minimum pricing works: it increases the price of cheap, high-strength drinks, like white ciders, that are typically consumed by harmful drinkers. Minimum pricing could also be a lifeline for the local pub, by stopping the use of alcohol as a loss leader by supermarkets and helping to even the playing field between the two.
While the spotlight is on minimum pricing, there are other positive measures in the Government’s strategy. For example, the Government recognises that a lot people still don’t understand the health risks of excessive drinking, so they’re expanding the Change4Life programme to include alcohol. We’ve worked recently with Change4Life on their recent adverts which highlighted how one drink can easily turn into a few.
In addition, we’re optimistic about the plans to include tools for health professionals to spot hazardous drinkers and help them reassess their drinking patterns. The development of a new approach to help under-18s who arrive at A&E with alcohol-related problems is also an encouraging step.
But despite these positive steps, we think the Government needs to balance these health messages with greater restrictions on alcohol marketing, particularly when it comes to protecting children. It is worrying that recent research has shown that more children recognise major alcohol brands than popular cake and sweet brands.
Overall, this strategy represents a big step forward in Government action on alcohol. It’s needed because the harms of excessive alcohol consumption extend much further than drunken chaos on a Saturday night.
Helping people to make healthy choices about alcohol consumption will help to reduce the toll of cancer on our nation.
Chit Selvarajah is a policy adviser at Cancer Research UK