LONDON // An average of 12,500 more lives a year could be lost in England and Wales over the next 20 years because of the UK government's failure to regulate alcohol sales, doctors claimed yesterday.
Liver disease specialists writing in the medical journal The Lancet, accused the Conservative-led government of being "too close" to the drinks industry and failing to take the decisive action needed to curb alcohol-related deaths.
For several years, health groups in the UK have been expressing concerns over the sale of cheap alcohol, particularly in supermarkets.
Last month, the government introduced measures to "ban the selling of alcohol below cost price" which, in effect, set the minimum price for a standard bottle of wine at just over £2 (Dh12) and £8 for a 700ml bottle of spirits.
James Brokenshire, the Home Office minister who announced the measures, said at the time: "Banning the sale of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT is the best starting point for tackling the availability of cheap alcohol and will send a clear signal to retailers and the public that government take this issue seriously.
"They will effectively set a minimum level below which alcoholic products cannot be sold and will stop the worst instances of deep discounting, which result in alcohol being sold both cheaply and harmfully."
But the authors of yesterday's report, led by Sir Ian Gilmore, the past president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that the government measures would do no such thing.
Accusing ministers of pandering to the interests of the drinks industry, the medics said that, on health grounds, a minimum price of 50 pence per alcohol unit, which would make a bottle of wine cost at least £4 and a bottle of spirits £14, was needed.
Otherwise, the report says, between 160,000 and 250,000 extra lives could be lost in England and Wales alone because of alcohol-related illnesses over the next 20 years.
The experts pointed out that the liver death rate in the UK already stands at 11.4 per 100,000 people, more than double that of the other countries with similar drinking cultures and genetic backgrounds, such as Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. A total of 15,000 people in England died in 2009 from alcohol-related illness, three per cent of all deaths,
"How many more people have to die from alcohol-related conditions, and how many more families devastated by the consequences before the government takes the situation as seriously as it took the dangers of tobacco?" Sir Ian said.
"We already know from the international evidence that the main ways to reduce alcohol consumption are to increase the price and reduce the availability of alcohol, yet the government continues to discuss implementing marginal measures while ignoring this evidence.
"Just as the government would expect us to treat our patients with effective medicines, we expect the government to take much stronger action to protect people from alcohol-related harm, when will that happen?"
The report accuses UK drinks producers and retailers of being "reliant on people risking their health to provide profits". It said that, according to research by the Department of Health, three quarters of alcohol was consumed by hazardous and harmful drinkers.
But the report says that recent steps taken by the government gave "cause for concern" about ministers' commitment to end harmful drinking habits.
"Plans to ban the sale of alcohol beverages below cost [duty plus value added tax] and to increase duty on beer over 7.5 per cent strength are inconsequential because of the tiny fraction of sales that fall into either category.
"These policies suggest that the government remains too close to industry and lacks clear aspiration to reduce the impact of cheap, readily available, and heavily marketed alcohol on individuals and society."
The authors claimed that it would be "relatively straightforward" for government to control alcohol consumption through price, place of sale and promotions.
However, David Poley, the chief executive of the Portman Group, which represents the UK drinks industry, said: "Latest government statistics show alcohol-related deaths actually fell in the UK last year and we want to see that continue.
"That's why the industry puts its energies into funding health education campaigns and working with people who are serious about reducing alcohol misuse in the UK.
"Creating doomsday scenarios is not in anyone's best interests, least of all the responsible majority of people who enjoy alcohol in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle."