17 January 2003

Churches call for 'health warning' labels for all alcoholic drinks

The Salvation Army and the Methodist Church are asking the Government to introduce legislation requiring the drinks industry to print cigarette-style health warnings on all products and adverts along with the recommended weekly alcohol unit intake for men and women. The recommendations are made in their submissions to the Government's consultation on a National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy.

The Churches recommend that the drinks industry should take more responsibility for the harm alcohol causes by contributing to the costs of prevention and treatment of problem drinking, much the same as is being proposed for the gambling industry. This could involve the drinks industry paying for the running of detox centres and community-based projects to support families affected by drink-related problems.

Alcohol abuse remains the biggest killer among all drugs in the UK. Alcohol Concern estimates that 28,000 hospital admissions per year are due to alcohol dependence or toxic effects. Moreover, each year 5,000 deaths in England and Wales are directly attributable to alcohol and it is implicated in a further 33,000.

"It is imperative that we find a way to encourage responsible drinking to reduce the huge numbers of deaths caused by drinking and the associated social problems," said Dr Adrian Bonner, Head of Addiction Services for The Salvation Army and an expert in Addictive Behaviour at the University of Kent. "We are looking for more measures to encourage a mind-set that says that all forms of excessive drinking are dangerous to individuals and those around them, not only drink-driving."

"We are concerned about the mixed messages concerning the health impact of alcohol," said Rachel Lampard, the Methodist Church Secretary for Parliamentary and Political Affairs. "There is minimal evidence for the health benefits of alcohol, whilst the evidence for the health costs is well established."

There is particular concern raised about young people's increased drinking. The Salvation Army report The Burden of Youth, which looked at issues facing young people, highlighted Department of Health figures from 2001 which showed that 24% of under-16s had drank alcohol in the week before they were surveyed. The Methodist children's charity NCH has noted that children and young people are starting to drink at an earlier age, whilst at the same time very little treatment is aimed at this age group. Specific, well-designed, innovative campaigns should be targeted at young people of school age to outline the dangers of alcohol.

In their submissions The Salvation Army and the Methodist Church have sought to encourage the Government in its role to combat alcohol misuse and its consequences. Other recommendations they make include making non-alcoholic drink in pubs and bars cheaper and trying local experiments where a minimum price is set for a drink, thus effectively neutralising 'happy hours'. These, along with student 'freshers' weeks', encourage binge drinking, particularly among young people. A move to longer opening hours for pubs and bars alone may not reduce the problems caused by levels of binge drinking but simply redistribute them. Such a move must be part of a package of measures to address anti-social behaviour and the impact of heavy drinking.

The Churches also express concern over the lack of primary treatment or detoxification services, not only because of a shortage in funding but also because of a shortage of qualified staff, which needs to be addressed if people addicted to alcohol are to be helped to overcome their problems. The Salvation Army and the Methodists have also called on the Government to ensure that money for alcohol treatment doesn't lose out to high-profile drug schemes.

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