Friday, November 24, 2006

Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy

Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy
11.27 am

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they propose to make any changes to the alcohol harm reduction strategy following the publication of a report by National Statistics showing that alcohol-related deaths had more than doubled between 1991 and 2005.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, the Government have a published commitment to revise their alcohol strategy in 2007. This will take into account the progress that has been made since the publication of the current strategy in 2004 as well as the latest information on alcohol-related harm and changes in public opinion which have occurred since then. Since 2003, the number of alcohol-related deaths has slowed and flattened out. The Government are working with industry to reach a voluntary agreement to agree sensible drinking messages on containers of alcohol. In October, we launched a “Know Your Limits” TV and other media advertising campaign targeted at 16 to 24 year-olds.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, since the Government have refused to update the estimate of £20 billion of alcohol harm, what alternative yardstick do they suggest that Parliament and the public might use in assessing the success or failure of the strategy? If alcohol harm is directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed—as most people believe, and as was confirmed by a recent European Commission study on the subject—does it not show the need for an independent audit of the Government’s strategy? Will they now reconsider their decision not to use price and availability as a means of influencing consumption?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the Government are not complacent. We are not saying that we are resting on our laurels of the 2004 strategy. We have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing that, including taking account of all developments and all the information available and working with all the people who are working in this area. We will publish that revision in the early part of 2007 and I think that the

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noble Lord will have to wait for that. But we have continued to act vigorously in this area to make people aware of the dangers of alcohol, and we will continue to do so.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, will the Minister accept that the reputation of my native city of Newcastle upon Tyne as one of the great fun cities of the world has been bought at considerable cost? Is he aware that a former colleague of mine—a distinguished Newcastle gastroenterologist, Dr Christopher Record—has reported an alarming incidence, with a 25 per cent increase in the past few years, of alcohol-related liver disease in young people and particularly in young women? What action will he and the Government take to apply pressure to the drinks industry to reduce the availability of cheap spirit-based alcoholic refreshment in the bars and restaurants of Tyneside and in similar locations across the country?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am not totally familiar with the experiences in Newcastle but, as I said in my earlier Answer, since 2003 the number of alcohol-related deaths has slowed and flattened out. It is true that a minority of young people continue to die at an unnecessarily early age because of the consumption of alcohol. There is no simple answer in this area, which is why we need a range of strategies. We are working with the drinks industry to ensure proper labelling on containers of alcohol warning people of the dangers of excessive consumption.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is an alarming increase in the number of underage children getting drunk? How many of them have died? Is he aware that it is putting great stress on A&E departments? Will he include children in the alcohol strategy?

Lord Warner: My Lords, we are concerned about underage drinking and drinking by people in their early years of adulthood. We also know that there has been an increase in the number of both men and women who are dying between the ages of 35 and 54. Those are serious problems which are sometimes related in part to excessive and binge drinking. We will continue to work on this area, as I said, with a range of strategies.

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: My Lords, as a lifelong teetotaller except for five years when I was what was called a “wet” Methodist—I hasten to add that that was not in the political sense in which my noble friends opposite might take it—I have always found myself rather more tolerant about drinking than those who have been lifelong drinkers.

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: Yes, my Lords, I am coming to the question—thank you very much for your prompting. I rather support the Government’s strategy and think they are going about it the right

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way. So I congratulate my noble friend. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s strategy is right, and will he accept my congratulations?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am always pleased to hear from my noble friend, particularly when he is in such a large measure of agreement with what we are doing. It is important to bear in mind that the majority of people are sensible, hard-working adults who should be allowed to choose how and when they enjoy their leisure time. We do not believe that the minority who misuse alcohol should restrict the activities of the responsible majority.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, as a “dry” Methodist perhaps I may come in on this question. First, is the Government’s policy robust enough to tackle the problem that we face today? Alcohol consumption has doubled per head in the UK since 1950. Finally, the alcohol reduction strategy does not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland but only to England. When will the other countries of the UK be included in the strategy to deal with this very serious problem?

Lord Warner: My Lords, like a number of things, drinking and its consequences are devolved matters, and the noble Lord will have to go to the Welsh Assembly if he wishes to know more about what is going on in that area. However, UK-wide, we are negotiating with the industry on the issue of sensible messaging on containers of alcohol. Our strategy is robust. It is having an impact and we are seeing more responsible behaviour by the industry and within the hospitality industry.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, do the Government intend to pursue the idea suggested in June by the Minister's right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, of legislation to compel drinkers who commit crimes of violence to undergo rehabilitation and detoxification schemes?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am always willing to support the wisdom of my colleagues in the Home Office in many areas. What I would say is that the statistics on violent crime do not show a significant change between April and June 2006 compared with the same period in the previous year. That is not to say that there are not problems, but we must keep them in proportion.

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