On Thursday 22 April 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion in Grand Committee, moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench):

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Commission on Alcohol Harm 2020 ‘It’s Everywhere’—Alcohol’s Public Face and Private Harm, published on 14 September 2020.

What is the Commission on Alcohol Harm?

Background

Chaired by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, the Commission on Alcohol Harm was established to examine the current evidence on alcohol harm, the recent trends and the changes needed to reduce the harm caused. Funded by the Alcohol Health Alliance UK—a coalition of more than 50 organisations working together to reduce the harm caused by alcohol—the commission also examined the need for a new comprehensive strategy for England and considered UK-wide priorities in areas where policy is not devolved.

To inform its work, the commission launched a call for written evidence in January 2020 and held several oral evidence sessions later that year. It received a wide range of responses, including from experts by experience, UK and devolved government, alcohol treatment providers, the alcohol industry, children’s charities, homelessness organisations and older people’s representatives.

Report

The commission published its findings in the report, ‘It’s Everywhere’—Alcohol’s Public Face and Private Harm in September 2020. The report found that the harm caused by alcohol is “everywhere in society, though often hidden from view”. Outlining its findings in three main sections, it focused on harm to: those around the drinker; society; and the individual.

Regarding harm to those around the drinker, it reported receiving overwhelming evidence about the harm caused to children and family life. For example, it outlined links between harmful parental drinking and:

  • neglect and abuse;
  • domestic abuse;
  • eating disorders;
  • alcohol dependence or addiction;
  • suicide; and
  • foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

It also found that the misuse of alcohol affects wider society through the burden it places on public services and the economy. It reported that, in England, the total cost of alcohol was estimated to cost the NHS £3.6 billion, while alcohol-related crime in England and Wales was estimated to cost society around £11.4 billion per year.

The report said that it was already well-documented that alcohol is “a major cause of death and disease”. It outlined evidence which highlighted that alcohol is the leading factor for ill health, early mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 in England. It also reported that evidence showed a range of conditions are caused or exacerbated by alcohol, including cancer and mental ill-health.

Responding to the issues raised, the report claimed that “alcohol harm currently takes place in a policy vacuum”. It said that in the absence of clear direction from government, the alcohol industry has not taken steps to reduce harm and “is failing its basic responsibilities to consumers”.

It therefore argued that “it is incumbent on the Government to set out a clear legal framework to protect and inform consumers”. It made a number of recommendations, including:

  • calling on the UK Government to introduce a new comprehensive alcohol strategy;
  • introducing minimum unit pricing in England and Northern Ireland;
  • restricting alcohol advertising across a range of platforms to protect children; and
  • labelling alcohol products with information about alcohol harm including nutritional information.

Reaction to the report

Commenting on the report in response to a written question in November 2020, the Government said that it was “committed to tackling health harms from alcohol and supporting the most vulnerable at risk from alcohol misuse”. However, it said that the new strategy recommended by the commission was not required:

Action on alcohol abuse continues through commitments in the Prevention green paper, the NHS Long Term Plan, funding to support children of alcohol dependent parents, and action to reduce alcohol-related crime. This wide-ranging approach negates the need for a separate stand-alone alcohol strategy.

Colin Shevills, director of North East alcohol office Balance, welcomed the report. He said it “brings to life” in the words of individuals and professionals the harm caused by alcohol and highlighted “the physical, mental, economic and social impact of alcohol, which is often visible on our streets and in our hospital wards but sometimes hidden from eyes and behind closed doors”. Joanne Good, who gave evidence to the report about her 16-year-old daughter Megan, who died after drinking white cider, also welcomed the report, saying she hoped that it would lead to positive change.

However, John Timothy, chief executive of the Portman Group, a social responsibility body and regulator for alcohol labelling, packaging and promotion in the UK, was critical of the report. He argued that there is little evidence to support the need for the measures suggested and claimed that they would disproportionately penalise those who drink responsibly.

What is the UK Government’s current policy?

The UK Government’s most recent alcohol strategy was published in 2012. Although the Government announced plans for a new strategy in May 2018, this was not produced.

More recently, the Government has argued that existing work means that a new strategy is not needed. It referred to the July 2019 green paper, Advancing Our Health: Prevention in the 2020s, which contained policies aimed at reducing the harm caused by alcohol, such as making alcohol-free and low-alcohol products more widely available. It also mentioned the NHS Long Term Plan (January 2019) which highlighted the role of alcohol misuse in health inequality and committed funds for evidence-based NHS prevention programmes to limit alcohol-related accident and emergency admissions.

Other work by the Government to address harms caused by alcohol includes the 2016 Modern Crime Prevention Strategy which set out alcohol-related crime objectives. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto also contained a commitment to use sobriety tags for those whose offending is fuelled by alcohol and to review alcohol duty. In addition, certain health and treatment objectives have included guidance and support for healthcare providers on the issue.

What policies do the devolved nations have?

On its website, the Scottish Government has outlined a number of actions it is taking to prevent and reduce both alcohol and drug-related harm. This included delivering the actions set out in its 2018 alcohol and drug treatment strategy and taking forward 20 key measures found in its 2018 Alcohol Framework, which set out national prevention aims.

In October 2019, the Welsh Government published its Substance Misuse Delivery Plan 2019–2022. Its overall aim is to ensure that people in Wales are aware of the dangers and the impact of substance misuse and know where they can seek information, help and support if they need it.

Information on the Northern Irish Government’s approach to alcohol and drugs misuse can be found on its Department of Health’s webpage.

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Cover image by Anete Lusina on Pexels.