Alcohol has always been a part of Andrea’s life. When she was younger she was often the last one left on a night out. As she got older she would glug down wine in restaurants. Eventually she found herself opening the drinks cabinet on a Monday morning before work.
In the UK, she isn’t alone. Public Health England estimate there are 595,000 alcohol dependent adults in England, while there are over a million alcohol related hospital admissions each year. Meanwhile, alcohol-related deaths are rising and four out of five dependent drinkers are not accessing treatment.
But we don’t need to accept this as the status quo. Three simple policy changes could help more people into treatment while reducing alcohol harm.
Stop ignoring older adults
In popular culture, problematic alcohol use is often associated with teenagers falling out of nightclubs or fighting outside kebab shops. But people aged 45 or over now account for 69% of hospital admissions where the main cause was due to alcohol, while younger generations are actually drinking less. The number of alcohol related deaths for over 50s has risen 45% since 2001 but many treatment services are still not accessible to older people.
More than 80% of participants at Drink Wise, Age Well, a programme run by Addaction to support older drinkers, drink at home alone. These older people often find the thought of walking into a drug and alcohol service extremely daunting, but many services don’t carry out home visits or look to engage people in community spaces where they feel more comfortable.
Elsewhere, arbitrary age limits still block some people’s access to some treatment and rehabilitation services. As a sector we need to do far more to understand the specific needs of older drinkers.
Introduce Minimum Unit Pricing in England
Alcohol is 60% cheaper than it was in 1980, while alcohol-related hospital admissions are 15% higher than a decade ago. 4% of drinkers consume one third of the alcohol sold, meaning a significant proportion of the industry’s profits come from people who drink in a way that hurts them.
Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) sets a minimum cost-per-unit of alcohol at 50p. It doesn’t affect the prices down the pub, instead it targets only the cheapest, high-strength drinks which are often consumed by people with an alcohol problem.
In Scotland, where MUP has been implemented since May 2018, a study in the British Medical Journal found the amount of alcohol purchased per person per week has fallen by 7.6%. The biggest fall was among the heaviest 20% of drinkers who on average reduced their consumption by two units. Elsewhere, a study in the medical journal The Lancet found that introducing a MUP of 45p in England would, after ten years, reduced alcohol-related deaths by over 800 per year.
MUP has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and has had a real effect already in Scotland. It’s time England catches up, putting people’s health ahead of alcohol industry profits.
Protect funding for alcohol services
Recent analysis by the BBC found two thirds of local authority alcohol treatment budgets fell between 2016–18 and 17 saw cuts of over 50%, with funding for alcohol treatment taking a big hit. The impact of these cuts cannot be understated. They undermine the quality of services and limit what can be delivered.
Four out of five people with an alcohol issue aren’t accessing treatment, a worrying statistic that can be partly attributed to services not having the resources to proactively engage people. Meanwhile, a ‘payment by results’ approach can mean local authorities overlook those with complex needs in favour of those where there is a greater chance to have a quicker ‘win’.
60% of people who entered treatment for alcohol in 2018/19 completed the full course, the highest percentage for any substance. Recent research by the IPPR think tank concluded “if a drug as cheap and effective as public health interventions were ever discovered, it would be heralded as a miracle.”
Andrea describes how “I thought I was battling my alcohol problem myself.” But after she attended her first alcohol group she realised “there are other people here, fighting the same demons as me and all of a sudden that feeling of being alone vanished.” When alcohol treatment works it doesn’t just help the person in question, the positive impact ripples through families and communities and can leave an imprint for generations to come. Protecting its funding protects everyone.
The person’s name has been changed to protect their identity.