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Ministers have failed to address Britain’s drinking “epidemic” and are working too closely with the alcohol industry, according to leading doctors who on Thursday called for much tougher measures to curb the sale of cheap alcohol.
The promotion and cheap pricing of alcoholic drinks is fuelling a “public health emergency” that must be dealt with by statutory, not voluntary, codes, according to a report by the British Medical Association.
Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of science and ethics, said recent governments had worked too closely with the alcohol industry and “have pursued policies of deregulation and liberalisation regarding alcohol control”.
“As doctors, we see first-hand how alcohol misuse destroys lives. It causes family breakdowns, is a major factor in domestic violence, ruins job prospects, is often related to crime and disorderly behaviour, and it kills.”
The BMA is calling for higher taxes on alcoholic drinks, the limiting of outlets where alcohol can be sold, and informative standardised labels on bottles and cans. It is also calling for an end to “irresponsible” promotional activities such as happy hours in pubs and cut-price supermarket deals.
Tesco said it was willing to discuss controls on alcohol pricing, but that the issue must be dealt with by government, as supermarkets were banned by competition laws from collectively raising prices and customers would go elsewhere if they acted unilaterally.
Asda said it was already in talks with the government on the issue and would be announcing a package of measures next week that focused on restricting access to alcohol in its stores.
“It is slightly disingenuous of people like Tesco to say there is nothing they can do. They cannot absolve themselves of any responsibility. But we do welcome their willingness,” said Hamish Meldrum, BMA chairman.
Figures show that a third of men and a fifth of women drink more than the recommended levels each week. Alcohol-related deaths have doubled since 1991 to more than 8,700 annually. However, the cost of beer and wine has remained stable, and in real terms has got cheaper.
The report also calls for the drink-driving limit to be reduced from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg. If enforced, this would mean drivers could only drink a small glass of wine or beer.
“The alcohol industry is a very effective lobbyist. It is sufficiently powerful globally to have an impact. We need to learn the lessons we learnt from tobacco and learn them quickly,” said Dr Nathanson.
Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, said that tackling binge-drinking was a priority for government. “We are working with the alcohol industry and other stakeholders to implement a comprehensive strategy to tackle it,” she said.
The BMA did not say by how much taxes should be raised, but suggested a 10 per cent rise in excise duty could reduce alcohol-related deaths by nearly 30 per cent.
The UK has one of the highest levels of alcohol use and binge-drinking in people under 18.
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