British docs want alcohol crackdown

February 22, 2008 6:45:43 AM PST
The British Medical Association wants higher taxes on alcohol, an end to happy hours and a steep reduction in the permitted blood alcohol-limit for drivers.A report by the group said new laws are needed to combat an epidemic of alcohol misuse that is costing health and law enforcement services in the country billions of dollars a year.

It comes at a crucial juncture in the national debate about how to tackle Britain's booze culture - one which has lawmakers re-examining everything from super-size glasses at fancy wine bars to super-cheap ciders at discount supermarkets.

British supermarket giant Tesco PLC says it wants to work with the government on new laws to ensure what it called the "responsible pricing" of alcohol, something campaigners say shows a consensus is building on how to handle the nation's drinking problem.

"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 behavior and it kills," said Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, the British Medical Association's head of science and ethics.

The association's report makes grim reading. Britain is among of the hardest drinking countries in Europe, and the country's alcohol-related death rate almost doubled between 1991 and 2005 - from 6.9 to 12.9 per 100,000 people.

Britain's hospitals are groaning under the strain. The association cited a 2004 government study putting alcohol's cost to the country's health, law enforcement and criminal justice services at billions of dollars a year.

Another study estimated that 70 percent of all peak-time emergency room admissions were linked to alcohol. London's ambulance service has devoted one of its vehicles, known colloquially as the "booze bus," exclusively to peeling intoxicated revelers off the streets.

The debate over the escalation in alcohol abuse is consuming an increasing amount of media attention. On New Year's Day, British papers carried front page pictures of half-naked teenage girls staggering around town centers and comatose youngsters passed out on sidewalks.

Earlier this month, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was worried by data that showed a majority of the country's 13-year-olds had consumed alcohol, while the president of Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers said last week that the country needed to "wake up" to its pathological relationship with alcohol.

"We have got a real problem with the way alcohol is marketed, the way it is consumed," Ken Jones told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Feb. 13.

Some have blamed the legalization of round-the-clock alcohol sales for the problem, saying it encourages all-night drinking. Others invoke British drinking culture and its emphasis on trading rounds of beer on an empty stomach. Some lawmakers even point to the size of wine glasses, accusing bars of trying to get patrons to consume more.

The British Medical Association said price, promotion and availability were key, and its report carried a graph showing alcohol consumption rising in line with increasing affordability.

The association urged the government to raise taxes, introduce minimum price levels on drink sales, cut back on opening hours and reduce the legal limit for blood alcohol content while driving.

It also urged the government to prohibit "happy hour" promotions and what it said was the "excessively cheap" alcohol being offered at convenience stores and supermarkets.

While the recommendations were not new, they come at the right time, said Frank Soodeen, a spokesman for Alcohol Concern, a charity devoted to fighting alcohol abuse.

Soodeen said that, paired with Tesco's offer, the medical association's report gave the government political cover to take more aggressive action on regulation and taxation.

The government, meanwhile, is conducting its own study of the impact of alcohol pricing on harmful drinking. The review, commissioned by the Department of Health, is due to be published over the summer.

Len Pentlin, 38, nursing a pint in a central London pub, said authorities could always look to the United States.

"You could increase the age limit," Pentlin said. "When I went to America in 1989, I went to some states and they asked for an ID."

WEB LINK: British Medical Association on alcohol abuse in Great Britain