This is the time for the medical profession to actually hold the Government to account. We are told that they are interested in evidence-based policies, that they have a public health agenda and want to reduce avoidable early mortality. But I think that to U-turn on minimum pricing would go against all those principles. The Government needs to play its part: if it is serious about reducing early mortality it has to play its part and part of that is getting rid of alcohol being sold at 20p a unit because it is killing people, in my view.
The health costs are enormous, not just within primary care. In secondary care we have seen a 400% increase in hospital admissions for liver disease in the under-30s. When I first qualified as a doctor, cirrhosis was something we saw in the over-50s and -60s but now we have younger and younger patients losing control of their drinking. I hope that the medical profession will send a clear message to the Government that they must not U-turn on this.
The cabinet is divided, I think the drinks industry has been lobbying hard to persuade them that this will penalise low-income moderate drinkers. The fact is, it is the poorest in our society that are suffering disproportionately as a result of alcohol related violence and it is a serious health inequality issue. We need to look at the real data on health inequality here and see who is really suffering from a lack of a policy on setting a sensible price.
The idea that this makes alcohol unaffordable is nonsense. For a 10% bottle of wine, or a 12.5% bottle of wine, you pay around 45p a unit. Nobody could say that is unaffordable although perhaps it may encourage people to buy lower-strength products. That is part of the benefit they saw in Canada, and early-outcome data shows nearly a third reduction in liver disease deaths and that is at quite an early stage. It is ultra-cheap alcohol that people are buying when they start to run into problems with their drinking.
The suggestion that the Government might drop minimum pricing is still unconfirmed but it is obviously coming from a senior source. This story is ‘flying a kite’ to see what the reaction will be, and so the medical profession needs to send a very clear message that we are fed up with watching our patients die from alcohol-related liver disease, witnessing the devastation that it is wreaking on their families and communities across the UK, and observing the impact that it is having on GP resources.
Public health would be right to be incandescent about a U-turn. We all know that campaigns and measures already taken would be undermined if we didn’t see a the Government take this sensible proportionate public health measure. We are all told everybody has to play their part in this, and this goes right through to the top. Everything else that people are doing throughout the system will be undermined if the Government doesn’t bring in this measure.
Dr Sarah Wollaston is the MP for Totnes in Devon, formerly working as a GP in the area