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Government failing to tackle alcohol harm, MPs say

The Government is failing to tackle harm caused by alcohol, with too few people in treatment and barriers to getting help, MPs have said.

The cross-party Commons Public Accounts Committee said Government data on how many people are struggling with alcohol problems is out of date, while the costs to the NHS and the economy must be an underestimate.

Its new report says much more needs to be done, including working with local councils that provide treatment services to ensure they have the resources they need to offer people help.

Existing data suggests 10 million people in England regularly exceed recommended guidelines on drinking, including 1.7 million who drink at higher risk and around 600,000 who are dependent.

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The study said it was “surprising and disappointing” the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is not being more serious about the issue, adding: “A staggering 82% of the 600,000 dependent drinkers in England are not in treatment.

“This is despite success rates of around 60% and evidence that, on average, every £1 spent on treatment immediately delivers £3 of benefit and significantly more in the longer term.”

The report said the department relies on a 10-year-old estimate of the cost of alcohol harm which is “out of date”, meaning it is “not even in a position to identify an appropriate response”.

The estimated £25 billion-per-year cost to the NHS and wider society is old and may not reflect the full scale of harm, it said.

It added: “Despite the widespread harm, there has been no alcohol-focused strategy since 2012 and the latest plans to publish one were abandoned in 2020.”

MPs said deaths linked to alcohol have risen 89% over the last two decades and sharply since the start of the pandemic.

Despite this, the report said, the number of people receiving treatment for alcohol dependency has generally been falling.

From 2013-14 to 2020-21, the number of adults in England receiving treatment for alcohol dependency fell by 16%.

Meanwhile, local authorities have seen their grant to fund public health services fall by £630 million in real terms since 2015-16.

“This has had inevitable consequences on funding for drug and alcohol treatment services”, the report said.

MPs welcomed an additional £533 million of funding for substance misuse services but said it was “short term”.

The study also found there were “unnecessary barriers” to people accessing treatment, with “too many people… falling through the gaps”.

Some people may not accept they need help, health workers may not identify problem drinking and “where people do recognise it, stigma around dependency and a reluctance to receive treatment alongside drug users can prevent them from accessing services”, the report said.

MPs also said they were “concerned to hear that some people are denied access to mental health services because of their alcohol dependency (and vice versa)”.

Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the committee, said: “The harms from alcohol are appalling and the benefits of every £1 spent on treatment are immediate and obvious.

“It is linked to over 100 illnesses, mental disorder and suicide and to 42% of violent crime. It also costs the NHS and wider society at least £25 billion a year with inflation – and possibly more.

“But the Government has had no alcohol strategy in place since 2012 and abandoned its latest effort in 2020 – just as deaths from alcohol began to rise sharply over the terrible, unacceptable toll it was already taking.

“What more does DHSC need to see to act decisively on this most harmful intoxicant?

“In doing so it must give local authorities the certainty and stability over funding to maintain and improve the treatment programmes that are proven to work, and stop dithering over the evidence on industry reforms.”

Experts giving evidence to the committee told MPs of the need for “preventative measures” around the price, availability and marketing of alcohol.

The report said: “The department does not share their assessment of the evidence but has not set out what it will do.”

David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils have seen £1 billion worth of cuts to their local public health grant over the last eight years, which goes to fund alcohol treatment services.

“To meet these increased pressures and transform the health chances of people in our local communities, councils need a long term increase in their public health grant.”

A Government spokesman said: “We’ve published a 10-year plan for tackling drug and alcohol-related harms and are investing an extra £532 million between 2022/23 to 2024/25 to create over 50,000 places in drug and alcohol treatment centres with high-quality care.

“We are also funding specialist alcohol care teams at one in four hospitals, based in those with the greatest need.”