UK Politics

UK needs to get tougher on alcohol - OECD

Wine bottles Image copyright PA

Tougher measures are needed to tackle high rates of alcohol consumption in the UK, international experts say.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of the 34 wealthiest countries found average annual consumption of pure alcohol was 10.6 litres per person - equal to 115 bottles of wine.

That represents a rise from under 10 litres in the early 1990s.

Researchers said the trend contrasted with falls in other nations.

The likes of Germany and Italy, they pointed out, had seen big falls in consumption.

In the early 1990s drinking rates in the UK were actually below the current OECD average of 9.5 litres.

The findings have prompted the OECD to suggest the UK should consider steps such as minimum pricing and tougher regulation to reduce consumption.

Educated women

One trend highlighted by the report was the high rates of problem drinking among educated women.

Nearly one in five women from the highest educated groups drinks to hazardous levels compared with one in 10 among the least educated group.

OECD economist Mark Pearson said the trend was "pretty unique" to the UK and appeared to be related to the increasing employment opportunities women were getting in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as the finance industry.

The UK - although this part of the report was based on England-only data - also has one of the heaviest concentrations of drinking among its population.

The heaviest-drinking one-fifth of the population accounts for nearly two-thirds of all alcohol consumed.

There also appears to have been a rise in youth drinking. The proportion of 15-year-olds who had experience of alcohol rose from 71% to 75% from 2002 to 2010 - although there are signs that has started falling in recent years.

To tackle problem drinking, Mr Pearson said the UK "should consider" taking tougher steps.

This could include minimum pricing, which is already being considered by ministers, banning sports sponsorship and enforcing clear labelling as well as improving access to treatment.

Mr Pearson said such steps presented "opportunities" to reduce drinking rates - although there was always a balance between tackling harmful drinking and penalising those who drink within recommended levels.

But he added: "In terms of lost productivity, health spending, and accidents and ill health, drinking costs a lot of money so I think it does clearly make sense to us that this is the sort of area that any country that cares about its economic performance has to take seriously."

Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said he agreed, adding the research showed there was "no silver bullet" and a range of policies on "pricing, marketing and availability" were needed.

"For too long, drinking has been seen as a personal choice rather than a population-wide public health issue," he added.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Drinking too much too often can be devastating for health.

"We know we need to do more to prevent people getting into dangerous drinking habits."

She said local authorities had been given public health funding to help tackle problems like drinking.

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