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BMJ. 2007 June 30; 334(7608): 1343.
PMCID: PMC1906677
BMA annual representative meeting, Torquay, 25 June to 28 June

BMA calls for action on “epidemic” of alcohol related problems

Doctors' representatives have called for a range of new measures to tackle what they say is a growing “epidemic” of alcohol related problems. These include a national roll-out of local schemes to outlaw consumption of alcohol in the street, more funding for alcohol services, and a rise in tax on drink that is proportionate to products' alcohol content.

In a separate motion, representatives at the annual meeting in Torquay pressed the BMA to fight for a legal limit for drinking and driving that throughout Europe was no more than 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood and to support random roadside testing without the need for prior suspicion of intoxication.

An amendment that would have changed BMA policy to make the legal limit 20 mg per 100 ml was narrowly defeated. But Kate Adams, of London, predicted: “Next year I think the clear message will be [that] you don't drink and drive—that's it.”

Figures released by the NHS Information Centre this week show that the number of people in England aged over 16 who were admitted to hospital for reasons related to alcohol consumption has doubled in the past 10 years—from 89 280 in 1995-6 to 187 640 in 2005-6. The number of alcohol related admissions among children aged under 16 had increased by more than third—from 3870 in 1995-6 to 5280 in 2005-6.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said that the figures were shocking but also expected. In recent years doctors had been seeing a steady rise in “the wrong type of alcohol use: binge and excessive drinking,” she said.

Figures also show that 6570 people died in 2005 from causes directly linked to alcohol consumption, mainly from liver disease. Two thirds of them were men.

“People do not understand that alcohol is an acute poison in excess,” said Dr Nathanson. It can lead to unconsciousness, dehydration, and major strokes, as well as accidents and violence.

A policy to reduce alcohol related illness needed to be multifaceted, said Dr Nathanson. Experience from measures to reduce tobacco use had shown that education alone was not enough and that it had to go arm in arm with pricing and purchasing policies. In the same way, she said, “the government should not rely on the alcohol industry to educate about alcohol.”

Encouraging local authorities to use legal powers to discourage drinking on the street was like dealing with the issue of secondhand smoke, said Dr Nathanson. She asked whether people should really feel unable to go through town on a Friday or Saturday night for fear of drunks.

Chris Spencer Jones, chairman of the BMA's committee for public health medicine and community health, said that alcoholic products should be taxed according to their alcohol content. Ten years ago wines had an average alcohol content of 11.5% to 12% but were now were generally around 14%. The public needed to be aware of this increasing potency, doctors agreed.

“Instead of asking if someone wants a cabernet sauvignon or a merlot, people should be asked whether they want a wine with 9%, 12%, or 14% alcohol,” said Dr Nathanson.

Dr Spencer Jones cited Dutch research showing that an effective way to reduce drinking among young people was to persuade parents not to drink in front of their children. “The more frequently and openly [that] parents drink in front of their children the more acceptable it is,” he said. The way drinking was portrayed on television and in the media also had an effect. “If it is not so in your face, it means that young people will not naturally gravitate towards it.”

BMA representatives narrowly agreed a motion that doctors should lead by example in changing attitudes and behaviour relating to alcohol. But they rejected moves to raise the legal age for buying alcohol in supermarkets to 21 and to restrict alcohol sales to licensed hotels and pubs. Charlie Daniels, from the General Practitioners Committee, said that the BMA might stand for “Barmy motherly attitude.” Doctors were the last people to lead a campaign against excessive drinking, he said. “It would be easier to ask the Pope to become a Protestant or Tony Blair to tell the truth,” as alcohol excess was “ingrained in our profession,” he said.


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