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Thousands are 'at risk of alcohol death' say doctors

media captionProfessor Sir Ian Gilmore said drinking culture must change

Poor alcohol regulation could cost up to 250,000 lives in England and Wales over the next 20 years, doctors warn.

Writing in The Lancet, leading liver disease specialists say measures including a minimum price of 50p per unit are urgently needed.

They also said the coalition government was "too close" to the drinks industry.

But the Department of Health said it was taking "tough action", while the drinks industry said it was "playing its part in tackling alcohol misuse".

The scientists predicted UK deaths from liver disease in four different scenarios.

The best case was based on the UK following the example of France, which had a deep-seated problem in the 1960s, with high liver disease deaths linked to the consumption of cheap alcohol.

Drinking levels there were reduced by imposing strict marketing restrictions.

Following that example, the doctors predict the UK could reduce the current level of deaths from liver disease of 11 per 100,000 by a third.

But they warn if nothing is done, deaths from all alcohol-related causes - including cancers and road accidents - could claim the lives of 250,000 people in England and Wales over the coming two decades.

'Serious situation'

The medics, led by Professor Sir Ian Gilmore who has long campaigned for action on alcohol misuse, welcomed the coalition government's plans to keep duty rises on alcohol at 2% above inflation.

But they say plans to ban the sale of alcohol at below cost price, and to increase duty on beer stronger than 7.5% proof, are "inconsequential" because only a tiny percentage of sales fall into that category.

Sir Ian told the BBC there had been a "very close link" between the falling prices in real terms over the last 20 years and the amount Britons drank.

"Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity like soap powder," said Sir Ian.

"It is a drug, it happens to be legal, but it is a drug and there are more than 1.5 million people addicted to alcohol. We think, like other areas of public health, like smoking, like seatbelts, there is a strong case for tougher regulation and the most effective regulation would be around price."

Sir Ian said recent figures had shown a slight decline in the level of alcohol consumption.

But he warned: "Fewer people are drinking more".

He added the claim that the government was "too close" to the drinks industry had come from the health select committee, who said ministers listened too much to the drinks industry and not enough to their own health experts.

The doctors also criticise government moves to include representatives from the drinks trade - but not alcohol health experts - on its "responsibility deal" board, which will help steer public health policy on drinking.

Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: "How many more people have to die from alcohol-related conditions, and how many more families devastated by the consequences before the government takes the situation as seriously as it took the dangers of tobacco?"

Don Shenker of Alcohol Concern added: "Government need to decide whose side it is on, that of the general public or drinks industry shareholders?

"We have to accept that in order to save both lives and our quality of life, certain measures which the industry won't like must be introduced to protect the public's health."

But a spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: "The authors ignore the fact that alcohol taxes and prices are among the highest in Europe, in contrast to France, a country with low prices yet cited as a nation having achieved a reduction in liver-related deaths."

He added that the drinks industry was "committed to playing (its) part in addressing the issues associated with alcohol misuse".

David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, which also represents UK drinks producers, said: "Latest government statistics show alcohol related deaths actually fell in the UK last year and we want to see that continue. 

"That's why the industry puts its energies into funding health education campaigns and working with people who are serious about reducing alcohol misuse in the UK.

"Creating doomsday scenarios is not in anyone's best interests, least of all the responsible majority of people who enjoy alcohol in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle."   

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The government has wasted no time in taking tough action to tackle problem drinking, including plans to stop supermarkets selling below-cost alcohol and working to introduce a tougher licensing regime."

She claimed the government was "taking a bold new approach" to public health.

More on this story

  • Why is alcohol consumption falling?

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