The failure of the Government to tackle harm from alcohol dependency over the past decade has led to a serious public health crisis, influential MPs have warned.
Deaths have risen by 89% over the past 20 years including a sharper increase since the start of the pandemic yet the number of people receiving treatment for alcohol dependency has been falling, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.
In a highly critical report, MPs said a ‘staggering’ 82% of the 600,000 dependent drinkers in England are not in treatment.
Yet treatment is a success in about 60% of cases and on average, every £1 spent on treatment immediately delivers £3 of benefit and significantly more in the longer term, the committee said.
Despite widespread harm and a cost to the NHS and wider society of £21bn, there has been no alcohol strategy since 2012 and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) figures on dependency are 10 years out of date ‘meaning it is not even in a position to identify an appropriate response’, the inquiry found.
The committee heard that more could be done by health services to identify people with alcohol dependency and direct them to treatment and that GPs and outreach could be used more to deliver services.
The suggestion came from Dame Carol Black, who led an independent review into drugs treatment and recovery on behalf of the Government in 2021.
The PAC concluded it was ‘surprised and disappointed’ that the Department is not taking a more ‘proportionate and serious approach’ to addressing the problem.
This includes acting decisively on evidence around preventative measures such as price, availability, and marketing.
But also addressing key issues of funding uncertainty for local authorities around delays in public health grants, barriers to accessing treatment local variations in outcomes and severe and worsening healthcare workforce shortages, the committee concluded.
More also needs to be done to ensure those who have both mental health issues and alcohol dependency are able to access treatment services.
‘Given the well-established relationship between substance misuse and mental ill health, we were concerned to hear that some people are denied access to mental health services because of their alcohol dependency (and vice versa),’ the committee said.
Dame Meg Hillier, PAC chair, said: ‘The harms from alcohol are appalling and the benefits of every £1 spent on treatment are immediate and obvious.
‘It is linked to over 100 illnesses, mental disorder and suicide and to 42% of violent crime. It also costs the NHS and wider society at least £25 billion a year with inflation – and possibly more.
‘But the Government has had no alcohol strategy in place since 2012 and abandoned its latest effort in 2020 – just as deaths from alcohol began to rise sharply over the terrible, unacceptable toll it was already taking.’
She added: ‘What more does DHSC need to see to act decisively on this most harmful intoxicant? In doing so it must give local authorities the certainty and stability over funding to maintain and improve the treatment programmes that are proven to work, and stop dithering over the evidence on industry reforms.’
Professor John Holmes, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield, said deaths due to alcohol have risen gradually since the early 2000s despite alcohol consumption falling driven by drinking rates in middle- and older-age groups.
‘The largest part of the increase in deaths occurred since 2019 and is due to the wider effects of the pandemic.
‘The precise reasons are unclear at this point but are likely to include heavier drinkers increasing their consumption during lockdowns and not reducing it afterwards; people being less likely to seek or access help from general and specialist health services and alcohol problems combining with other problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic and people getting more ill as a result.’
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘Alcohol misuse can ruin lives and destroy families, so we are taking serious action to support those most at risk.
‘We’ve published a 10-year plan for tackling drug and alcohol-related harms and are investing an extra £532m between 2022/23 to 2024/25 to create over 50,000 places in drug and alcohol treatment centres with high-quality care.’
A draft NICE quality standard published earlier this year asks GPs to formalise recording of patients’ alcohol use so they they do not miss out on interventions.