Feb 18, 2013

The perfect cocktail…and other tips for safer, healthier alcohol regulation

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT) recently called for a minimum floo

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT) recently called for a minimum floor price on alcohol.

In the UK, the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is supporting such a policy, and some of the background to this breakthrough has been revealed today by a leading British authority on alcohol policy, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore. 

At an alcohol policy forum hosted by the Australian Medical Association in Canberra, Sir Ian, the Royal College of Physicians’ Special Advisor on Alcohol and Chair of the United Kingdom’s Alcohol Health Alliance, described how a mix of persistent advocacy, serendipity and evidence created a cocktail for change in alcohol policy.

Thanks to Adrian Rollins, Editor of the AMA’s publication, Australian Medicine, for filing the report below on the forum.


To reduce alcohol-related harm, focus on regulation

Adrian Rollins writes:

Governments have to tighten rules governing the price, marketing and availability of alcohol if they are to curb the harm caused by dangerous drinking, a leading international expert on alcohol reform has warned.

Renowned UK physician Professor Sir Ian Gilmore told an AMA forum on alcohol policy at Parliament House that the consumption of alcohol was driven by price, promotion and availability, and efforts to reduce harmful drinking needed to focus on the product, rather than blaming individuals and ‘culture’.His comments came against the backdrop of ongoing debate about alcohol regulation in the NT.

Sir Ian backed warnings from the AMA that the alcohol industry was actively promoting drinking among teenagers and adolescents, and needed to be subject to tough external regulation.

Studies in the UK and the Netherlands had shown that children were more likely to see alcohol ads than their parents, and many were specifically pitched to appeal to young people, he said.

AMA President, Dr Steve Hambleton, said the proliferation of such advertising, including through sports sponsorships, social media games and product promotions, was very worrying because such exposure could lead to damaging drinking habits.

“Too many adolescents and teenagers are starting to drink alcohol,” Dr Hambleton said. “The earlier they start drinking, the more likely they will become problematic drinkers throughout their lives.”

Sir Ian, a former President of the Royal College of Physicians and current Chair of the UK Alcohol Health Alliance and the European Alcohol Health Forum Science Group, linked Britain’s position atop Europe’s binge drinking table to marketing and to the ready availability of cheap booze.

He said Britons, on average, drank 25 standard drinks a week – twice the amount they did in the 1950s – with serious affects on health, both in the short and long term.

Sir Ian said alcohol was the “number one risk factor” among those in the UK who died before 60 years of age – contributing to almost a third of all deaths of men aged between 16 and 25 years – though the peak period for alcohol-related deaths was between 45 and 65 years.

Sir Ian, who is a leading UK specialist on liver disease, said alcohol was not only linked to car fatalities, physical assaults and violence, but was also a major cause of chronic disease and fatality, noting that drinking caused 80 per cent of all deaths in the UK from liver disease.

He said it was these complaints, rather than injuries and accidents, that accounted for most of the one million admissions made to UK hospitals each year stemming from alcohol.

Sir Ian said the approach taken by the drinks industry to alcohol policy was to emphasise that its consumption was a normal part of life, and to try to confine any policy action to the relatively small section of the population deemed to be heavy drinkers.

But he said this merely protected the industry’s own interests, and governments needed to take a much broader and more thoroughgoing approach.

The product is the problem

“Alcohol is not ordinary. It is a drug of dependence,” he said. “And the problem lies not with individuals, but the product.”

He said that, as in Australia, industry self-regulation in alcohol advertising in the UK had been a failure, and he endorsed the AMA’s call for a parliamentary inquiry into the marketing of alcohol to young people.

Sir Ian said the promotion of alcohol and drinking in all its forms, from traditional advertising to sports sponsorship, product placement in television shows and films, through social media games and even mobile phone apps, was an important target of policy reform.

But he said equally significant in the UK was action on the cost of alcohol.

Sir Ian said the rise of heavy drinking in Britain had been driven by the availability of cheap alcohol sold by supermarkets and off-licenses (bottle shops).

While the volume of alcohol sold through pubs, clubs and restaurants had remained relatively stagnant, it had surged through other outlets, with supermarkets using heavy discounts on wine, cider, spirits and other drinks to lure shoppers.

For example, he said, one retailer was selling three litres of alcoholic cider for the equivalent of $4.35.

Alcohol reform campaigners in the UK have been heartened by political moves to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol.

Sir Ian said such a measure could be very effective, because it would raise the price of the very cheap drinks that were favoured by heavy drinkers, while not affecting the cost of beer and wine sold at pubs and restaurants.

The Scottish parliament has approved an alcohol floor price of 50 pence, though it has yet to enact the legislation pending the outcome of legal challenges being mounted by the alcohol industry.

Just as promisingly, Sir Ian said, British Prime Minister David Cameron had thrown his support behind a minimum floor price in England, though at a lower rate of 45 per cent per unit of alcohol.

Asked what had brought the British Government to this position after years of resistance to the idea, Sir Ian ascribed it to a slow build-up of pressure over time from reform advocates, combined with a serendipitous and unexpected circumstance.

He said the breakthrough came when an MP, who was a doctor, asked Mr Cameron during parliamentary Question Time about a minimum floor price on alcohol.

The Prime Minister then sought a briefing on the issue and threw his weight behind the proposal, which is yet to be submitted as a Bill.

Developments in the UK have leant fresh impetus to efforts in Australia to tackle the curb the visibility and availability of alcohol, particularly products targeted at the young.

Dr Hambleton said governments in Australia should take note of what is happening overseas, including in the UK.

“Young people continue to be exposed to alcohol marketing at an unprecedented level, and from multiple sources,” the AMA President said. “It is vital that we reduce this exposure.”

• Declaration: Professor Gilmore was guest speaker at the AMA’s Alcohol policy reform forum, at Parliament House, Canberra, on 18 February.


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